There is a church near Piazza Navona, in Rome, that contains a famous painting by Caravaggio, entitled The Calling of Saint Matthew (see below). The painting is both odd and humorous, since Matthew and his fellow tax collectors are portrayed as Renaissance yobs. They wear the clothes of Caravaggio’s contemporaries: hose, blouse shirts, and a hat with a feather. One character is armed with a sword.
The left half of the painting depicts Matthew as engrossed in counting his money, surrounded by like-minded toughs who seem a bit surprised by the interest shown in Matthew by the two characters on the right. On the right half of the painting, and seemingly a world away, stand Jesus and Peter. Jesus and Peter are barefoot, and Jesus points to Matthew in a manner reminiscent of God extending his hand towards Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. That may be no coincidence, since Caravaggio may have borrowed that scene, in almost tongue-in-cheek fashion, from Michelangelo’s work.
The painting is all the more impressive because Caravaggio has to capture, in a still painting, the dynamic of the Son of God calling a sinner, Matthew, to ministry. Caravaggio does so with the use of light, the contrast in clothing and demeanor between Matthew and Jesus, and the portrayal of Matthew as wholly in engaged in money-counting as Jesus calls him.
We are approaching the end of Year A (2010-2011) in the Lectionary, which features the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew the Evangelist’s feast is celebrated on September 21, so I’d like to reflect on my impressions of the distinguished author of the first gospel. First, Matthew most certainly does mention himself in his Gospel. Here the Evangelist speaks of his calling in in Mt 9:9-13:
As Jesus went on form there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the customs post, and he said, “follow me.” Matthew got up and followed him. Now while he was at meal in the house, along came many tax collectors and sinners, and joined Jesus and his disciples at the meal. The Pharisees saw this, and asked, Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus heard them and said, “It is not those who are well who need a doctor, but those who are ill. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ That is why I came to call the righteous but not sinners.”
Readers may have noted that I imply that Matthew speaks of himself as the tax collector in his own Gospel. So I am also suggesting that Matthew the tax collector and Apostle is also Matthew the Evangelist (see my post here as to my argument). The early Fathers of the church, including Jerome, Irenaeus and Eusebius, assert that Matthew the Apostle wrote the Gospel of Matthew.
Matthew and the Prophet Isaiah
Matthew is a first-rate theologian, apologist of the Christian faith, and a first-class defender of the premise that Jesus is faithful to the Law and the Prophets. Matthew goes to great length, sometimes making his case with profound Scriptural insight, that the preaching of Jesus is not only in the prophetic tradition of John the Baptist, Isaiah and the prophets of the Old Testament, but is also its fulfillment.
Matthew is keenly aware of the Book of Isaiah. There are six express references to Isaiah, and perhaps another half-dozen implied references to Isaiah, within Matthew’s Gospel. For instance, Jesus mentions Isaiah and quotes him when speaking to the Pharisees at Mt. 15:7. John the Baptist mentions Isaiah in Mt. verse 3:3, and quotes from Isaiah when he says, make straight the way of the Lord. Matthew also tells us that Jesus’ preaching and actions fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy in verses 4:14, 8:17, 12:17 and 13:14.
Matthew and Discipleship
An imposing theme in Mathew’s Gospel is discipleship. Consider this: the terms “disciple” and “disciples” occur seventy times, in Matthew’s Gospel alone! Matthew is not simply interested in convincing us that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. Matthew is equally concerned that the future followers of Christ have a set of instructions in order to live a ‘life in Christ’ in general, and a life of ministry, specifically.
Matthew very faithfully records a series of short discourses (known as the five discourses) in which Jesus catechizes or teaches his followers how to conduct themeselves. Even his last discourse, which is a debate with the Temple leaders, is a catechesis – a warning to future Christians as to how church leaders should not behave.
The topics that Jesus chooses often repeat. He uses the image of the vineyard as a simile for the place where pastoral work is engaged. He uses the image to reinforce the idea that there ought to be no pride of place among the laborers. In addition, their duty as laborers in the vineyard is to do the Lord’s will, rather than as they please.
The Gospel of Matthew, perhaps more than any other New Testament work, emphasizes the importance of Christian service and upright conduct in ministry, as part and parcel of the role of a disciple of Christ. Thus Jesus tells us that a model disciple forgives his enemies (Mt 6:43) and avoids rash judgment of others (Mt 7:1-5). A good disciple is open to the evangelization of the entire world (Mt 8:5-13), knows that he is dependent upon God for his pastoral success (Mt 14:13-21), and refrains from exploiting or mistreating those under his care (Mt 18:21-35).
Finally, Matthew ties salvation to works of charity in a way that would not be evident in the letters of Saint Paul. In Matthew chapter 26, Jesus explains that the “righteous” (Mt 26:46) are those that clothe the poor, feed the hungry and visit those in prison. While we cannot deny that grace is the source of these works and faith is the motive, Matthew’s Gospel tells us that the disciple of Jesus must translate his faith into works of love and charity.
Jesus Is Tough on His Critics
Jesus tells us in the Gospel of Matthew that those charged with the spiritual welfare of others must hold themselves to high standards, and remain faithful to the Scriptures. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus speaks alternately of the “pharisees” (mentioned 30 times), “scribes” (20 times), “elders” (12 times) and “chief priests” (20 times). Notwithstanding the very different political and social interests that these four classes within the Judean religious economy represent, Jesus is often critical of each of them.
What exactly, does Jesus say about these interests? Here is a sample from Matthew’s Gospel:
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (5:20)
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. (16:21)
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it. When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. (21:43)
Now the chief priests and the whole council sought false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death. (26:59)
A fair question is whether Matthew is being unkind towards the religious leaders in his Gospel. If one believes that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God, then the answer is categorically, “no.” The ministry of Jesus, by its very nature, put the religious authorities on the spot. The miracles he worked, the popularity of his ministry, and Herod’s order to behead John the Baptist (which had politically disastrous consequences), forced the religious authorities to take a stand as to whether Jesus could be allowed to continue preaching in public.
R.T. France argues that the leadership of the time rejected Jesus in much the same way that the prophets, such as Jeremiah, were rejected by the leadership of their time. According to Matthew’s Gospel, the tension between Jesus and the leadership reflects the religious leadership’s skepticism with regard to Jesus’ teaching. Most especially challenging would have been the belief that Jesus fulfill’s the prophets’ prediction of the coming of a messiah to deliver Israel and humankind.
A Disciple is Known By His Good Work
Matthew’s Gospel emphasizes the teaching of Jesus that a true disciple of Christ is known by the fruit of his works. Consider Mt 7:16-18:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit. A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Matthew tells us that John the Baptist spoke similarly in verse 3:10:
Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Then Jesus defends his own good works in Matthew 12:32-33:
And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. “Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit.”
Then Jesus uses the same analogy of the fruit-bearing tree when he curses the fig tree prior to entering the Temple. Matthew is, by analogy comparing the fig tree to the Temple leaders in 21:19. Let’s be clear that Jesus has nothing against fig trees. He is using the fig tree as a metaphor for those who ought to, but do not bear good fruit:
And seeing a fig tree by the wayside he went to it, and found nothing on it but leaves only. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.