This is Carravagio’s painting depicting the Call of Matthew / Levi.
Caravaggio was a Baroque period painter who lived a relatively short life, even in his day, of 38 years. He was a renowned belligerent drunkard. He was not the first choice of the church officials to paint a three painting series of St Matthew on the walls of Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.
In the painting, forget for a moment that Caravaggio contemporized the clothing and the setting to be more like 16th century Italy, we see a man showing Jesus where to find Levi (Matthew) amidst the rest of the tax collectors. It is not clear if the man who is seated and pointing is pointing at the fellow next to him or at himself. This was probably by design by Caravaggio, the ambiguity suggesting that Jesus could call almost anyone at any time. But, like a lot of people, I prefer to think of the fellow pointing as being Levi, who is pointing towards himself as if to say “Wait! you mean me?”
Calling is an interesting thing. Because the Bible includes so many dramatic stories of calling we sometimes get trapped into thinking that we have to experience a burning bush or a whale story to be called. We forget that Samuel was asleep and a boy. We forget that Levi was hanging out at work. Steven the Cyprian was just travelling through Jerusalem and was asked to carry a cross. The four whom we saw rip up the roof and lower their paralyzed friend down were just doing that.
Yes, all too often, we get caught up thinking that calling always entails: “When Christ calls a man he bids the man to come and die.” That’s a quote from The Cost of Discipleship by Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer is not wrong, there is a systematic death to self that must take place in the following of Christ; but, Bonhoeffer, is a tad over-dramatic. Sure, Peter, whom Bonhoeffer uses as his example ultimately was called to be martyred as was Levi/Matthew and therefore were both metaphorically and literally called to die. The truth is that the vast majority of followers of Jesus are never asked to do such things. We should never forget that many are and it is the potential cost of all our discipleship; however, we should also never forget that many more are not called in that way. Bonhoeffer was writing at a very dangerous time in a very particular context. If we aren’t careful we misjudge our own time and the sinfulness of pride can lead us to look for the “good fight” every where and in all times. But I digress.
Verse 15 says that after Levi responded to the call (You know, after he said “who me” and Jesus likely responded with “well, yeah” or “and why not you?”) that he and Jesus were at a meal together where lots of sinners and tax-collectors were present with Jesus disciples. The sentence is a little ambiguous. The verses ends with this clause “for there were many of them and they were following Jesus.” It is unclear if the many refers to the sinners and tax-collectors or if it refers to the disciples. Either way there were many of them and they were following Jesus and the concepts of many and following are more important than the identities. This is precisely what I think Mark is intending for us to hear. Sure we all know about famous followers like Levi or St Paul or Bonhoffer or C.S. Lewis or Mother Theresa or Beth Moore but there are always many more anonymous followers of Jesus. Hordes of them in fact.
Sure there are those of us who are called by God to follow Jesus into big jobs and life changing / life threatening work. Most of us though are called to the other kind of discipleship: quiet, consistent witness every day exactly where we are.
- Have you delayed your own urging to follow Jesus because you are afraid of where he will send you?
- Perhaps you have fallen into the pride trap of wanting to be picked for something big for the Lord?
- Maybe you have forgotten how important just being a witness in the everyday is to the work of the Kingdom of God?
Stop waiting to follow. Be like Levi: arise and follow. Be like the unnamed many and spend some time around the table in fellowship with Jesus. Go to worship. Pray each morning; you always have something to give to God in prayer. Be kind. Don’t judge. Find some ways to give back to the community. Even the quiet disciples are welcomed with “well done good and faithful servant” when it is time to cross the Jordan.
Feel free to use this Bible study for your own groups or discussion. It is freely given. If you do I merely ask that you acknowledge where you got it and if you find it useful that you encourage others to seek it out. It is freely given and written with fear, foreboding, and prayer by a fellow hypocrite who is simply trying to figure out the road ahead.