Sunday of Week 5 of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Commentary on Isaiah 58:7-10; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; Matthew 5:13-16

Today’s gospel immediately follows the Beatitudes. And the readings are saying that the Beatitudes must not only be lived, but seen to be lived. The Gospel reminds us that it is essential for the Christian disciple both to be seen and heard. Christianity is not a private religion. I am not just a Christian for me only. Christianity is a vision which is meant to change the world, and there is no doubt that, to a great extent, it has.

Several images
Jesus uses a string of images to express this: He wants his disciples to be the salt of the earth. Salt is a basic and essential item in our diet, but it had a particular value in ancient culture. It is a purifier, a seasoning and a preservative. This was especially the case in the days before refrigeration. Today we tend to take in too much salt and are warned about doing so. But in older times, it was a precious and often expensive commodity, and because of its value, it was often a favourite item of taxation.

What Jesus emphasises is its distinctive taste. We often judge food by saying it has too little or too much salt. Christians then, by their Gospel-centred lives, are to give a distinctive taste to society. Those who really have the spirit of the Beatitudes (including non-Christians) will permeate the world, renew it, and retard its social and moral decay.

But salt only produces its effect when it is totally merged with the food. It is indistinguishable from the rest of the food, but its presence or absence is very obvious. The Christian, too, can only be truly effective when he or she is fully a member of society and, at the same time, gives an unmistakable taste to that society.

There have been times when Christians felt that they should keep away from the “world”. Monks and nuns, who were among the most committed Christians, built large walls around their property to keep the “world” out. Although they clearly did have a visibility of their own, especially in an all-Christian society. Their very separation from the rest of society and the lives they led were meant to be a challenge. In a secular and pluralist society, such witness may give a very different message and be less effective.

In our Western society, we often put salt on the side of the plate. This is like the Christian who does have taste, but who lives on the fringes of society and makes no impact on it. This can happen very easily when, for instance, we have a parish which is only concerned with its own spiritual well-being and makes no effort to reach out. There are many parts of our society, especially the commercial, industrial and entertainment areas where the Church is often totally absent. The other extreme is when a Christian is totally immersed in secular society, but has nothing to give. This is like the tasteless salt which is good for nothing.

“You are the light of the world”
Jesus said of himself, “I am the light of the world.” We are then called to be and to do what Jesus did for the world. The Gospel message is to shine out through our words and actions. Some people will not like that light, preferring darkness, and may try to put it out. But Jesus dealt with that in the last Beatitude where he speaks of persecution for the sake of the Gospel.

Jesus uses two more images to emphasise the essential visibility of the Christian. He speaks of a city built on top of a hill. It sticks out like a sore thumb. There is no way to hide it. And he speaks of a lamp on a lamp stand. What is the point in lighting a lamp then covering it up? What is the point in getting baptised, joining the Christian community and then become completely invisible to others, especially to those who are not Christians? For instance, how many of my neighbours know that I am a believing and practising Christian? How many of my colleagues at work know? How many of my socialising friends?

What should be seen?
And what does Jesus want people to see? Packed congregations? Magnificent churches which are architectural masterpieces? Thousands on their knees praying? People doing severe penitential exercises? Planeloads of pilgrims going to places of devotion, like Rome, the Holy Land, Lourdes, Fatima, Medjugorje…

All these things are undoubtedly good, but nothing like this is mentioned in today’s readings. What kind of religious observation does God want to see? To answer that question let us listen to the First Reading from Isaiah:

To loose the bonds of injustice…
to undo the thongs of the yoke…
to let the oppressed go free…
to break every yoke…

This is Christianity? This is religion? But it is so political! And Isaiah is not finished yet:

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry?
And bring the homeless poor into your house?
When you see the naked, to cover them?
Not to hide yourself from your own kin?

It is then, and only then, that we will truly be the salt of the earth. “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up quickly…” Then you will find God.

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say, ‘Here I am’…
Then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.

Show off your good works!
Let the light that is in us, then, shine brightly. And why? So that people will see our good works and say how wonderful Catholics we are? No! There is only one reason for us to be salt and light for others – so people may be drawn to God as their Lord. Our only aim in living out the Gospel with maximum visibility is to point people in the direction of the God who loves them and in whom is their ultimate happiness. Our aim is to urge people to work together for the kind of world that God wants us to have.

To do all this we do not need elaborate training, or a postgraduate degree. It is within reach of the most simple, even illiterate, person. It is not a question of passing on knowledge, but of sharing our experience of a loving God.

So Paul says today in the Second Reading:

When I came to you, I did not come…in lofty words or wisdom…
For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified…
I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.
My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom,
but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power,
so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom,
but on the power of God.

Paul tells us elsewhere that he begged God to remove from him a serious disability which he felt prevented him from preaching the Gospel effectively. Three times he begged God to take this thing away. And, he says, God answered his prayer, not by taking it away, but by helping Paul to realise that it was precisely in his weakness and through his weakness that God’s power became most obvious in him.

So our lack of talent or influence or education can never be excuses for not sharing our experience of Christ and of working with others to establish the Kingdom among us.

We saw that in a person like St Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa), who exerted such a powerful influence by the utter simplicity of her life. Wearing her simple white sari and her old leather sandals, she could visit the destitute and dying in the slum of an inner city and the next day be socialising with the rich and powerful wearing exactly the same clothes. That is what being the salt of the earth means.

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