THIS TIME I actually wrote something, instead of just starting a draft and accidentally letting Blogger post it with nothing but the picture and the Bible verse. Hope it was worth the wait. Happy Fat Tuesday fellow pirates! Once Mardi Gras is over, I hope you'll visit here for some spiritual feeding throughout Lent.
This Lent I'm trying to write a series of essays on the Gospel of Matthew, I call them "Door Matts," because it's the first book in the New Testament, it's sort of the welcome mat, the gateway-drug, if you will, into Christianity. These may not go in any particular order. Hopefully, we'll dig up plenty of pirate's treasure as we weigh anchor and delve into the headwaters of God's living waters!
Matthew 9:9-13Ya gotta love this. Michelangelo Caravaggio was the most famous painter in Italy in the early 1600's. He had a reputation as a passionate, short tempered playboy who got in lots of fights and plenty of trouble with the cops. Lots of mystery surrounds his death, a fugitive on the lamb for accident;y killing someone, he is said to have succumb to wounds received in a sword fight while hiking a long way seeking pardon and protection from some religious leader of some kind.
9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. 10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Fascinating as his personal life is, I'm more fascinated with Caravaggio's paintings (of course as a high school Art teacher I would be). He used powerful dark backgrounds like his Dutch contemporary Rembrant. This is called "tenebreaism," from the Latin "Tenebre," for dark (like Good Friday Tenebre service). This way, his subjects were lit in a focused, almost theatrical way. This contrast made for extremely dramatic scenes.
He was also known for his gritty realism. Other painters gingerly flattered their subjects, especially in religious paintings; David as big as Goliath, Mary young and attractive at Jesus' death, Apostles dignified and blemish-free. Caravaggio painted age, poverty, sweat, blood and dusty feet.
I love this painting of the calling of Levi (Matthew). Caravaggio made the tax collectors and officials in contemporary dress. Imagine Jesus in an IRS office, pointing over the cubicles to Matthew in his button down shirt and tie, talking with colleagues over by the Xerox machine. As I understand it, this made this painting somewhat controversial at the time. Today we just think it's corny because first century Palestinian Jews are dressed like 17th Century European dandies, at the time it was really edgy.
Instead of angels and cherubs coming down from Heaven onto Matthew, Caravaggio simply uses the daylight from a window behind Jesus to follow his gaze and arm to an incredulous Levi. The tax collector has a strange look on his face like "Me? You want ME to be Your disciple? Are you NUTS? What could you possibly want with somebody like me?"
But exactly Matt, Jesus didn't come for those goody-goody Pharisees who are so pious and perfect that they don't think they need God. He came for the rest of us, as Grace the secretary in 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off' might say, He came for "the sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, waistoids, dweebies, dickheads - they all adore him. They think he's a righteous dude."
Was Matthew a sell-out to the Romans? Was he greedy or corrupt? Was he a nerdy, bean-counting accountant? Of the four Gospels, his is the one most aimed at Jewish readers. As someone who collected taxes for Herod the regional tetrarch he was probably resented by his own people.
Yet Jesus chose him. Jesus chose him to follow him and to tell His story, first to those very people who resented him, then to all of us. His is the first name Sunday School kids memorize when they have to learn the books of the New Testament.
You have to love Matthew's response to being called, he throws Jesus a party at his house- and he invites his friends so that they can meet Jesus too! Shouldn't we all be like that? That's when the religious leaders threw a huff. "Well, Jesus can't be trusted or respected as a spiritual teacher, look who he hangs out with!"
After Jesus ascension, tradition holds that Matthew stayed in and around Jerusalem for several years preaching to the Jews. Jewish Christians were sometimes called Nazarenes at that time. Later, he is believed to go down to Ethiopia like Phillip, Macedonia (Greece) and eventually up on to what is today Iran and possibly to where Pakistan and Turkmenistan are now. That makes some sense to me because he's often paired with Thomas, who was supposed to have gone all the way to India.