Be Transformed As A Disciple
In a small church near the Piazza Navona in Rome stands a famous painting by the Baroque artist Caravaggio. I like to take pilgrims there, not just to admire the beautiful masterpiece, but for a more important spiritual purpose: to enter the mystery of what it means to be a disciple.
The painting depicts the gospel account of Jesus inviting Matthew the tax collector to follow him. In Caravaggio’s portrayal of this scene, Jesus enters the world of Matthew and his tax collector friends. Light pours through a window behind Jesus and streams into the darkness of the tax collector’s hole. The symbolism is clear: Jesus, the Light of the World, is entering the darkness of Matthew’s life. He looks Matthew in the eye. He points at Matthew. He calls, “Follow me.” What will Matthew do?
Some of Matthew’s colleagues next to him don’t even notice what’s happening. These are men who are too caught up in themselves—
unaware of others and oblivious to the fact that Jesus is in their midst. One older man stares at the money on the table, touching his glasses in a miserly way, wondering, “How much money did I make today?” Meanwhile, a youthful tax collector sits at the table forlorn, his head facing downward and his fingers stroking his coins. He has all the money in the world, but he is still empty, unfulfilled, searching for something more. These men are totally unaware of who just entered the room.
But there is one who certainly does notice. It’s Matthew. The look on his face tells it all—multiple conflicting emotions torment him all at once. On one hand, Matthew is completely shocked that Jesus is pointing at him: “You want me, a tax collector, a sinner, to follow you? You’ve got to be kidding! You must be thinking of someone else!”
On the other hand, Matthew’s expression suggests there’s a part of him that’s actually considering the new possibility: “I wonder what it would be like to follow this Jesus? What would my life be like if I made this change? . . . Maybe my life would be better. Maybe I’d be happier. I wonder if I should do this?”
But, in the same instant, Matthew also has a look of terror on his face—frightened over the mere thought of such a dramatic life change. “There’s no way I could do that! I don’t want to leave my job, my career, my reputation, my friends. . . . I don’t want to let go of my money bags!”
Caravaggio’s painting beautifully captures Matthew at the point of decision—that pivotal moment between Matthew the tax collector and Matthew the disciple. What will Matthew do?
HOLDING ON TO OUR MONEY BAGS
Maybe you’ve been there before. Maybe you’ve experienced certain moments when you sense God is calling you to do something. It may not be an extraordinary spiritual experience, like seeing visions or having angels appear to you. Just a subtle sense that you’re supposed to do something or not do something. You wonder if you should make a small change (call your mom, give extra attention to one of your children, visit a friend, or join a Bible study at your parish). You sense you need to say you’re sorry to your spouse for something. You’re frustrated by someone’s actions but suddenly realize you should respond with patience. You ponder whether you’re spending too much time at work and not enough time with your family.
Those little nudges from God, those subtle promptings of the Holy Spirit, are moments when Jesus is inviting you to follow him more closely. And they happen often in the midst of ordinary Christians’ daily lives. They may not be as dramatic as that occasion when Jesus walked into Matthew’s tax collector’s office, but the point is identical. The same Jesus, the Light of the World, knocks on the door of our hearts. He wants to enter our lives and shine his light on any areas of darkness that keep us from a closer relationship with him. Will we let him in?
Caravaggio’s painting invites us to do just that: to welcome Jesus into our lives more, to put ourselves in Matthew’s shoes and experience anew Jesus’s call to follow him more closely as disciples.
ME, A DISCIPLE?
Unfortunately, many Christians don’t view themselves as disciples. “I’m just a normal Christian. I go to church. I believe. I try to be a good person. But I’m not good enough to be a disciple.” Too often, we view “ordinary Christians” and “disciples” as being in two separate categories. Disciples are those super-Christians, those who are part of an elite group of religious leaders or exceptionally spiritual people. Bishops, priests, Mother Teresa, lay leaders, and those “very religious” people who show up at every event at my parish—those are disciples. “But I’m just an ordinary guy in Pew Number 16. I could never be a disciple.”
But what if I were to tell you that being a disciple is not beyond you and that it’s something you’ve probably already begun experiencing in your relationship with God? What if I were to tell you that learning how to live more intentionally as a disciple can make all the difference in your spiritual life?
If you desire a closer, more intimate relationship with Jesus—if you desire your spiritual life to grow more profoundly and go far beyond the humdrum existence of a Christian who is just going through the motions—then consider what it means to follow Jesus intentionally as a disciple.
WHAT IS DISCIPLESHIP?
If there’s one key word that sums up the essence of discipleship, it’s imitation—imitating the life of the teacher.
Though the word disciple (mathetes) means “learner,” a Jewish disciple gained more from his rabbi than just book knowledge. Discipleship was more of an apprenticeship—an immersion into the rabbi’s whole way of life. A disciple would live with the rabbi, share meals with the rabbi, pray with the rabbi, and observe the way the rabbi studied, taught, served the poor, interacted with his friends, and debated other teachers. And the goal of discipleship was to emulate the master’s entire way of living. Jesus sums up this point, saying, “Every one when he is fully taught will be like his teacher” (Lk 6:40).
Thus, when Jesus commissions his Apostles to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth, he tells them not just to spread information but to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” teaching them to “observe” all that he has commanded them (Mt 28:19–20, emphasis added). Notice the emphasis is not merely on head knowledge. While disciples certainly need to know the content of his message, Jesus stresses the importance of observing his teachings, putting them into practice in their daily lives. Living out the teachings was more important than merely knowing them.
Similarly, the Apostle Paul teaches that the goal of the Christian life is not just believing the truths Jesus reveals but imitating the Lord Jesus. The followers of Jesus, he says, are made “to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29). When Paul raises up disciples of his own, he emphasizes the importance not just of learning concepts from him but also of imitation: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1).
When he sends his own disciples to form others, Paul’s message is still focused on imitation: “I urge you, then, be imitators of me. Therefore, I sent to you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the LORD, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church” (1 Cor 4:16–17).
This biblical notion of discipleship beautifully expresses what the Christian life is all about: the imitation of Christ. It is the lifelong process of encountering Jesus anew each day, like Matthew does that moment in the tax collector’s office, and being changed by Jesus so that we become more like him. But this encounter is not a one-time act. Jesus is constantly calling us to take that next step in faith, that next step closer to him. Indeed, he calls us throughout our lives to ongoing conversion so that we become more like him. Over time, we start to think as he thinks, see as he sees, love as he loves, and act as he acts. When Christians talk about “growing in holiness” or “pursuing sanctity” or “becoming saints,” they are, in essence, talking about the imitatio Christi, or what the Scriptures would call discipleship.