My favourite painter of all times is the other Michelangelo of the Renaissance, from the village of Caravaggio and known to the world by that same name. He indulged in drinking, gambling and violent outbursts with little provocation. Certainly not an example of great virtue.
Instead of my dragging out background information, here’s a link to the Wikipedia page about him. It’s a much better biography than I could produce: better researched and sourced. If you want to learn more about him, his life and the tremendous gifts he left the world I encourage you to go there.
My favourite is The Calling of Saint Matthew. To understand this painting and it’s relevance to the topic of ‘Being Catholic’, you need to understand one simple fact. Before his life as an Apostle, Saint Matthew was a tax collector.
Nowadays that doesn’t really mean much, does it? They’re seen as somewhat colourless, humourless accountant types. Maybe a little self assured with the power they wield but certainly not much more than unpleasant form of bureaucrat. At best a nebbish; at worst a malevolent martinet intent on plaguing your life for his/her own amusement.
At the height of Roman power, however, in Palestine and anywhere the rule of Cesar reached, the tax collector was despised. The system of the day was that every governor or head of state was required to pay Rome a specified amount for all the benefits of being part of the great empire. Much like a mob protection racket today, it wasn’t always viewed favourably by those on the paying end of the deal.
Whatever the governor/king/factotum collected over and above that tithe to Rome was his to keep.
As most of the governors were career soldiers looking at retirement this was seen as their last opportunity to ensure some comfort in their old age. So early taxes were assessed not on what the citizens owned or what was needed to run the state but on the comfort of the governor’s nest. And nest egg.
The tax collector was the pointy end of the stick used to pry every possible penny from the citizen. The worse a man’s reputation, the better able he would be to extract, extort and downright bully money out of the peasants, common folk and otherwise great unwashed. Tax men were open to bribes, payoffs and every form of corruption to look the other way. To say they were viewed as the scum of the earth would not be an exaggeration.
Caravaggio was a sinner, a brawler, a drinker but in this moment he found the promise of redemption: for Matthew, for himself, for all of us.