Feb 4, 2017

5th Sunday: "Try a little salt!"

(James Tissot - Jesus teaches)

"You are the salt of the earth . . . the light of the world."

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

You are the salt of the earth . . . You are the light of the world.”  Interesting comparisons Jesus makes in the Gospel this Sunday from Mt 5: 13-16. While we may think of ourselves as compared to other things such as a particular animal as in “gentle as a lamb” or “strong as an ox” or “fast as lightning” or “slow as a snail” or “a voice like thunder” or maybe “a voice clear as crystal” I generally haven’t heard that we compare ourselves to a common daily flavor enhancer.  Likewise, to imagine that we shine like a light may require some explanation.

Today, we are warned that too much salt is unhealthy.  We look at the salt content of food we buy yet we know that we need a certain amount in our diet.  We use it to give flavor to food but we’re also concerned about its effect on our blood pressure and water retention. Still, I like salt on my food – what about those salt and vinegar potato chips?  Delicious, in moderation of course. 

A plate of green beans or broccoli without a bit of salt is rather bland.  In the same way, we are concerned about the general cost of energy so we use new forms of light that are developed for lower energy use yet shine with equal brightness such as in LED lighting. So our comparisons these days seem based more in science or common everyday use with no particular life changing qualities.

Yet, Jesus’ use of these images is important for he means them in a different context. He means this as a reminder of our need for true conversion. Here, the Gospel continues the image of Jesus as a wise and practical teacher in this continuation of his famed Sermon on the Mount.  He offers guidance on the Christian life for his followers to those who will hear him and pay attention.

In ancient times, salt was precious and was even used as payment for services rendered. We may imagine it was a kind of gold for barter and trade and valued widely. One would be “worth their weight in salt.” It was expensive and also used for its preservative quality.  We know that it melts snow and ice on roads and gives flavor to foods. Salt had many implications for its value and usefulness.  

So too Jesus reminds us to not be “bland” and lukewarm Christians but give “flavor” to our Christian faith.  Preserve the faith passed on to you and be energized by it.  Recognize the importance of attracting others to follow the Lord and his Church.  If we Christians/Catholics are just blah, same old same old, exhibiting no fervor or excitement about following the Lord, then why would anyone join us?  What would be the attraction?

A Christian who simply keeps his faith quiet and private, never sharing in the joy of the Gospel or being a man/woman of conviction in the way of the Lord, is ineffective and tasteless Jesus implies: “But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?  It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” Ouch but true!

By comparison, if only we would be as committed to, as excited about our faith as so many are about sports events; just think what a powerfully “salty” community we might have.  Just think of the Super Bowl or the Olympics or a favorite college football team.  While a good game is indeed fun, we sure have no tasteless fans there.  How does such an event compare with your experience of Sunday liturgy or your latest encounter with a fellow parishioner or your most recent discussion about the faith? What role did you play and how salty were you or another?  ?  While no one wants to turn Sunday Mass into a wild football game still the point is made.

The image of light is clearer.  Jesus teaches, “. . . your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father” so that others can see and be attracted to the Lord. Not fascinated with ourselves and all the good we supposedly do but rather find a welcome to Christ and his way in the Church.

The first reading from Isaiah offers concrete ways to give flavor and light to our faith:
Share your bread with the hungry; shelter the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them . . . then your light shall break forth like the dawn . . .” Jesus later refers to such acts of human compassion as the measure of justice and judgement upon all of us in Mt 25: 14- 30: “whatever you do to the least of my brothers/sisters, you do to me.”

So our readings this Sunday have an especially practical application to how we live out the Gospel values laid before us. How we exist in this world with purpose and meaning. This is a kind of wisdom literature from the Son of God himself. To be a genuine and effective disciple of the Lord and an effective Catholic witness to the faith, we must be distinctive salt and a shining light, each in our own way according to our ability.

Our weekly assembly makes this clear as we refer to the Holy Eucharist as “food for the journey,” the Bread of Life and we are sent forth at the end to “Announce the Gospel of the Lord” or to be Christians who are “glorifying the Lord by your life.” In the end it is Jesus himself who sends us out on his mission.  How salty will we make ourselves and how bright will we shine?  

I ran across the following reflection from the writing of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was martyred during the celebration of Mass as a very salty and clear witness to the faith in 1980 in El Salvador:

Light from Light

“A Christian community is evangelized
in order to evangelize.
A light is lit
in order to give light.
A candle is not lit to be put under a bushel,
said Christ.
It is lit and put up high
in order to give light.
That is what a true community is like.
. . . It is not just an individual conversion,
but a community conversion.
It is a family that believes,
a group that accepts God . . .”

(from, The Violence of Love

Archbishop Oscar Romero)