Homily for Feb. 5th, 2017: 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A.
Isaiah 58:7-10; Matthew 5:13-16
AIM: To explain the images of salt and light in the gospel
Jesus never talked over people=s heads. He spoke in simple, everyday language that even children could understand. What could be simpler than the two images Jesus uses in our gospel reading: salt and light?
AYou are the salt of the earth,@ Jesus says. The words are simple enough. But what do they really mean?
A guest at a wedding was asked to propose a toast to the bridal couple. Before he did so he presented them with a beautifully crafted mahogany box.
AOpen it,@ he told them.
When they did so, they saw it contained salt.
AI have given that to you,@ he said, Abecause you=re going to need it. Salt adds flavor to food. You cannot keep house without it. If you run out of toothpaste, you can use it, mixed with soda, to brush your teeth. Salt mixed with hot water helps heal a sore throat if you gargle with it. Before refrigeration was invented, salt was used to preserve food. It is still used as a preservative in many parts of the world: to cure fish and ham. You can use salt to melt ice on your front steps in winter. And salt can also be used to smother a fire.@
AAnd now, A he said, Ahere is my toast. AMay you bring into your marriage all of salt=s properties C its ability to cleanse, to heal, to preserve. May it melt the frost and ice that will sometimes build up between you, and put out the fires of anger when you try each other=s patience. Finally, as you embark on life in double harness, try to take things with a grain of this salt. If there is salt in your marriage, it will be healthy, lasting, and strong.@
In the ancient world in which Jesus lived soldiers received an allotment of salt as part of their pay. Because the Latin word for salt is sal it was called their salarium, from which we get our word salary. Even today, when someone doesn=t measure up or do his duty we say he=s Anot worth his salt.@
Jesus says to us: AYou are the salt of the earth.@ He is telling us that we are that ingredient in the world which, like salt, may be small in quantity, but which makes all the difference in quality. By itself, of course, salt tastes quite different from the food to which it is added. Jesus uses this image to tell us that we too must be different from the world around us. We must live by different standards. Last Sunday=s gospel gave us a description of those standards in those sayings of Jesus called the Beatitudes. They are Jesus= recipe for happiness. His way to happiness is very different from that of the world around us. Where Jesus says, ABlessed are the poor in spirit,@ for instance, the world says ABlessed are the rich.@
Jesus also tells us: AYou are light C the light of the world.@ The first creation tale in Genesis says that creation began when God said: ALet there be light.@ And the writer adds immediately: AAnd God saw that the light was good.@ (Gen. 1:3f).
When, in the fullness of time, God=s Son came into the world, he said: AI am the light of the world.@ (Jn 8:12) Pondering those words, and the story of creation in Genesis, Christians came to discern Christ=s role in creation. Hence we say in the Creed: AWe believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, ... through whom all things were made.@
It is not difficult to understand that Jesus is the world=s light. How dark the world would be if he had never lived! To hear Jesus say, however, AYou are the light of the world,@ takes our breath away C or at least it would, if the words were not so familiar to us.
Notice: Jesus does not tell us to become the world=s light, any more than he tells us to become salt. As followers and friends of Jesus Christ, given a share of his life in baptism, we already are salt and light for the world. ABe what you are!@ Jesus is saying.
Does that mean isolating ourselves as much as possible from modern society and culture? becoming dropouts? There have always been Christians who thought they must do that. They are good people. But they are mistaken. To isolate ourselves from others is like putting the lamp which lighted the small one-room house of Jesus= day under a basket. The people who heard Jesus knew that wasn=t what you did with a lamp. You put it on a lampstand where, as Jesus says in today=s gospel, Ait gives light to all in the house. Just so,@ Jesus continues, Ayour light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify ...@ Glorify whom? You? No C that your good deeds may glorify God! Why? Because without God we couldn=t do any good deeds. He is the one who inspires us to do good deeds. And it is God, and God alone, who gives us the power to do good C to be what we are: salt to cleanse, heal, and preserve; and light to shine in the darkness of our world.
What kind of good deeds is Jesus talking about? Our first reading tells us:
“Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own. ... remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech ... bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted.”
Isaiah addressed those words to people who were scrupulous about the rules of religion, but too often blind to the claims of humanity. The good deeds which Isaiah is talking about point away from themselves and from us, to Him who first inspires and then enables us to perform these deeds.
This short gospel reading challenges us. If our world is often dark; if modern society and culture often leave us with a bad taste in our mouths; this is because we, the followers and friends of Jesus Christ, too often fail to be what we became in baptism: the world=s salt, the world=s light. The eighteenth century British statesman, Edmund Burke, said: AAll that is necessary for evil to triumph in the world is for good people to do nothing.@
Here at these two tables of word and sacrament the Lord first takes us up into his light and then sends us forth to pass on that light to others in a dark world, through a life of joyful service and generous love.