Salt of the Earth, Light of the World
(Readings: Isaiah 58:7-10; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; Matthew 5:13-16.)
Introduction to Mass
The readings this Sunday show how the community of believers in God have to be prepared to be a non-conformist minority in a world which often rejects the values and way of life God wants his creatures to embrace. Jesus tells his disciples they must conduct themselves in such a way that their faith and their actions shine like a light in the darkness, hopefully drawing people into relationship with God by the example they give.
So to prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries...
These words of Jesus from the fifth chapter of Matthew's gospel follow on immediately from the passage that we heard in the gospel reading last Sunday.
In that passage Jesus was preaching to people in general, inviting them to embrace the way of God's Kingdom. This Sunday his remarks are directed more narrowly towards the disciples, in other words to the people who have already responded to the invitation to pursue God's Kingdom. Jesus' advice here is aimed at the Church - at us.
You are the salt of the earth, he says. You are a city on a hill-top, a lamp set on a lamp-stand. As usual Jesus teaches with images and symbols. And to my mind there are two important aspects to what he's teaching here with these particular images.
One is that the model he draws of his community is that of a small group committed to the way of God's Kingdom living in the midst of a society which on the whole ignores or rejects God's Kingdom.
Let's remember that he had just finished off his list of blessings by saying "Blessed are you when people abuse you and persecute you and speak calumny against you on my account". There seems to have been an assumption in Jesus' mind that the individual person or the group of people who adopt the values and attitudes Jesus preached about would find themselves at odds with the values and attitudes of mainstream society.
That same assumption lies behind the advice he gives here to his disciples: the community dedicated to the Kingdom is likely to be a minority group, with values and priorities in life which conflict with those of the majority.
But then there's more to the symbols that Jesus uses here than that rather negative point. What Jesus goes on to say is that although the Christian community might always be a small minority, with a vision of life which the majority of people actually reject, nevertheless it's a community with a job to do and a service to perform, for that majority.
Salt is something which we add to our food to enhance the flavour and make it tastier. If we add the right amount we don't taste the salt as such. It's more that the presence of the salt enhances the taste of the food.
A lamp is something that allows us to see when there's no daylight. We don't look at the lamp itself; we look at what the lamp casts its light on, and the light helps us see what we're doing, instead of stumbling around in the dark bumping into things.
These are the functions Christ wants his Church to perform. We're not supposed to draw the conclusion that because the values of the Kingdom are contrary to the values of society that we should withdraw from society into a small sect of super-righteous people, aloof from ordinary people. That would be the equivalent of lighting a lamp and then putting it under a tub. The light would be shining, perhaps, but it wouldn't be helping anyone to see anything.
Christ's idea is more that his followers should carry on living in the midst of ordinary society, with all its different kinds of sickness and sinfulness - but all the time trying to find ways of contributing the values of God's Kingdom.
"Your light must shine among men, so that seeing your good works, they may give the praise to your Father in heaven". Jesus certainly wants his followers to share their faith in God with other people and to preach the message of the Kingdom. But he doesn't want them to do it by words as much as by actions and by example. If we’re going to win people over to the Christian message at all, Christ prefers that we do it by the example we give of living it and practicing it.
I say that because of the words of the prophet Isaiah that we just heard a moment ago in the first reading. In the space of only sixteen lines Isaiah lays out an inspiring programme of what men and women have to do to put their faith in God into practice: they have to carry out simple, but demanding, acts of generosity, compassion and liberation:
"Share your bread with the hungry...shelter the homeless poor...clothe the man you see to be naked..."
Isaiah goes on: "Do away with the yoke" - in other words put an end to any situation where people are being crushed or exploited. “Do away with the clenched fist" - physical violence - and "the wicked word" - verbal violence, speech that distorts the truth or does harm to people.
For Isaiah, these are the activities we have to engage in - and the activities we have to avoid - if we want to show the right kind of devotion to God. And when you do these things, Isaiah tells us, "your light will shine like the dawn"; "your light will rise in the darkness". The prophet falls back on images similar to those if Christ: putting these kinds of action into practice is doing away with moral darkness and spreading moral light.
At the present time, in the economically advanced type of society we live in, there's an urgent need to reflect on the model of Church life which today's readings propose to us.
There was a time in the recent past – let’s say from the end of the Second World War onwards - when the mood in our country was in favour of reconstruction, peace and social justice. Against the background of two world wars and the huge suffering involved, people concluded that they had to dedicate themselves to building a better world and a fairer society.
What is the situation today? We seem to live at a time when all those generous and expansive impulses of the earlier period are being eliminated. In the countries of the developed world we now seem to have governments and a political class which has no vision of the good or just society to offer their citizens.
Instead they can hardly restrain their eagerness to solve every problem by legal coercion or military force, putting forward arguments about new situations where torture isn’t really torture and dismissing the Geneva Conventions as out of date and unable to deal with the “new dangers” we’re all facing; looking for ways of increasing surveillance and limiting civil freedoms, producing guidelines to reassure people about the level of violence they’re allowed to use against intruders to their homes. These are the values of a society where the commitment to creating a just, peaceful, humane, co-operative world has been abandoned.
In these circumstances there's even more of a need for the Christian community to shine the light of the gospel on every area of life and to resist this spiral into deeper violence, greater abuse of power, further assaults on human dignity and rights. We have to play the role of the non-conforming minority, constantly drawing people’s attention to the moral principles which Isaiah puts forward as the basis of our life together, and resisting attempts to create a society ruled by anger and fear.
That's part of the relevance at any rate of today's readings, for us as Jesus’ present day disciples. Those are some of the ways that we can carry out Jesus instruction to put our Christian lamp on a lamp-stand so that its light shines throughout the whole house.