The Calling of Saint Matthew,
Painted by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610),
Oil on canvas,
Painted circa 1599,
© Rome, San Luigi dei Francesi, Contarelli Chapel
Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?
Jesus went out to the shore of the lake; and all the people came to him, and he taught them. As he was walking on he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus, sitting by the customs house, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.
When Jesus was at dinner in his house, a number of tax collectors and sinners were also sitting at the table with Jesus and his disciples; for there were many of them among his followers. When the scribes of the Pharisee party saw him eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ When Jesus heard this he said to them, ‘It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick. I did not come to call the virtuous, but sinners.’
Reflection on the Side Chapel Painting
In today’s reading we hear about Levi, the tax collector. It is important to look first at how the tax system worked during Jesus’ time. Levi basically worked for the Roman government, collecting taxes for the empire. The Romans came up with a tax quota for each province in the empire. They got the local nobles to bid on the contracts for collecting the taxes in each area. These nobles then had a team of people to collect these taxes. As long as they met their quota, Rome didn’t care if they collected much more. As a result, the tax collectors became very rich as they overcharged the people, paid Rome and kept the difference for themselves. Tax collectors such as Levi would have been considered dishonest, despised by their own people and viewed as traitors to their nation. Yet it is exactly this man whom Jesus calls to follow Him!
Jesus saw the hidden potential in Levi and called him. Levi was asked to leave his old life behind and start a new one with Christ. This man would be given a new name after his encounter with Christ to mark his new chapter in life: Matthew. And what great things Jesus achieved through him! He would become a faithful follower of Jesus and would go on to write one of the four Gospels. Matthew was probably not enjoying his old life that much and God has already been working on Levi’s heart before Jesus passed by that day. So the minute he met Jesus, he stood up, left his old life and followed Him.
Our painting by Caravaggio, shows the moment that Jesus is calling Matthew. This painting is over three meters in height and hangs in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome. The scene takes place in an interior, dramatically lit by natural light coming from a door behind Christ. Matthew and his companions are busy counting the money they have collected. At the centre of the table are an inkstand, with a pen dipped into the inkwell, a ledger and a bag of coins. Matthew would discreetly also have lended some tax-payers the money they owed to the Roman administration, with a high interest rate… Christ on the right is almost completely hidden by the figure of Saint Peter. Christ is firmly pointing to Matthew; there is no room for doubt. Matthew is traditionally depicted as bearded middle-age man. He is pointing to himself with his finger, asking for a confirmation of Christ’s gesture. The light strikes him in the face… a symbol for Grace leading to salvation…
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