This week Westminster/John Knox Press publishes my most recent book on preaching, How Odd of God: Chosen for the Curious Vocation of Preaching. The book is my attempt to give encouragement and nourishment to my fellow preachers through the lens of Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election. Here is an excerpt from that book:
Throughout my ministry, I have kept a single painting ever before me. A print hangs over my desk even now, authorizing my work, guarding my faith, rationalizing why I am here rather than elsewhere. It is Michelangelo Caravaggio’s “The Calling of Saint Matthew.” Caravaggio completed this painting in 1600 for the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.
Caravaggio was rumored to be quite a scoundrel in his public and private life, a notorious brawler and profligate. His subject, Matthew, was a tax collector, among the worst occupations in first-century Judea. Thus we have a sinner’s portrait of a fellow sinner encountered by the Savior of sinners, only sinners. See Matthew to the left, hunched over his ill-gotten gain, so absorbed in his loot that he fails to notice the intruder who thrusts his hand into the dark room. Caravaggio required defense by his ecclesiastical patron Cardinal Francesco del Monte because he dared to portray the calling of Matthew as a contemporary event that happens now in a dark room in Rome. Matthew is surrounded by a group of Italian dandies in seventeenth-century fine attire. A bearded companion looks toward Christ and gestures toward Matthew, “Who? Him?”
The only light in the painting comes from behind Christ, possibly from the door he has opened when he disturbs the tax collector’s den. Caravaggio has depicted the moment of vocation, the scandal of Christ selecting a scoundrel for discipleship. Christ’s hand is thrust into the room, penetrating the group of preoccupied Roman money-grabbers. His outstretched hand is a quote from Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” in the Sistine Chapel. Get it? We are witnessing not simply the vocation of an individual to discipleship. Vocation is repetition of Creation, a whole new world, light shining in the darkness in the election of an unlikely disciple.
Pope Francis came to Rome as a young man and often visited the chapel in order to contemplate the painting. The young priest in formation exclaimed, “This is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze.” I first saw this painting as a twenty-year-old, similarly stunned by the thought that, wonder of wonders, Christ might be calling someone like me to become a preacher. I’ve never grown out of the wonder of that afternoon in Rome when I looked upon this painting and, as Christians so often do, shamelessly applied this Bible story to myself and switched places with Matthew, a sinner on whom the Lord had turned his searing, demanding, electing gaze.
Caravaggio has given more powerful testimony in paint than I can hope to do with words in a book. He has depicted the event of election, the outrage and mystery of a God who calls sinners, the wonder of a Savior who must keep reminding, “You didn’t choose me; I chose you.” (John 15:16).