In the Gospels of previous Sundays we have been following the story of Jesus’ early career. He went to be baptized. Then, when he heard that John the Baptist had been murdered, he moved from Galilee to Capernaum. Here He chose his apostles. And last Sunday we reminisced about his “presentation” as an infant, which, in itself, looked forward to his suffering yet to come..
This Sunday, our story, begins with Jesus instructing the disciples about how to be his followers. He tells his disciples to “be what you are.” He gives images, “If you are like salt, then don’t lose your flavor.” If you are like a lamp, “don’t put a basket over yourself where no one can see your light.”
But, we have to ask the question: Would the disciples have followed Jesus if they had known what it really would mean to “be what you are”? The First Reading, from the Prophet Isaiah tells us,”it means to share your bread with the hungry, to shelter the oppressed and the homeless. clothe the naked.” Do not turn away from your own. This is how you let your light shine in the darkness. It is the meaning of “becoming yourself.”
Jesus used these ordinary images, such as salt and light, to convey extraordinary truths that transform our minds, hearts, and lives. What does salt and light have to teach us about God and the transforming power of his kingdom? Salt was a valuable commodity in the ancient world. People traded with it, like we trade with valuable goods, such as gold and livestock. Salt also served a very useful purpose, especially in warmer climates before the invention of electricity and refrigeration. Salt not only gave rich flavor to food, it also preserved food from going bad and being spoiled.
Jesus used the image of salt to describe the transforming effect of God’s work in our lives – and how the Holy Spirit wants to work through us to bring the power and blessing of God’s kingdom to others. As salt purifies, preserves, and produces rich flavor for our daily food. We as disciples of Jesus, are, also, “salt” for the world of out human society. The Lord wants to work in and through us to purify, preserve, and spread the rich flavor of God’s kingdom everywhere – his “kingdom of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).
What did Jesus mean by the expression “if salt has lost its taste… it is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot” (Matthew 5:13)? Salt in the ancient world was often put into ovens to intensify the heat. When the salt was burned off and no longer useful, it was thrown out on the ground where it would easily get trampled on and swept away (Matthew 5:13). How can we lose our “saltiness”? When we allow the world, sin, and Satan to corrupt us. The Lord wants us to preserve our “saltiness” – through virtuous living and rejection of sin – not only for our own sake but also for the sake of others.
“I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom,” St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians. He preached with the only words he had, unpolished but true. He lived his conviction of the truth of Christ. Our faith, as St. Paul writes, is not communicated by the eloquence of high-sounding words or worldly wisdom. Too often, we use clever arguments and rationalization to explain our faith away, where like St. Paul, we only ever have to talk of “Christ Crucified” and what that means to us.
Jesus used the image of light and a lamp to describe how his disciples are to live in the light of his truth and love. This is also used as his illustration of God’s transforming work in and through us. Lamps in the ancient world served a vital function, much like they do today. They enable people to see and work in the dark and to avoid stumbling. In his light we see light ( Psalm 36:9). His word is a lamp that guides our steps (Psalm 119:105). God’s grace not only illumines the darkness in our lives, but it also fills us with spiritual light, joy, and peace. Our mission is to be light-bearers of Jesus Christ so that others may see the truth of the gospel and be freed from the blindness of sin and deception.
In today’s Gospel Matthew applies to Jesus the prophetic oracle of Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.” In like manner, the Psalm for this Sunday (Psalm: 112:4-5, 6-7, 8-9), asserts that the Lord is my light is echoed in Jesus’ words: “I am the light of the world; the man who follows me will have the light of life.”
Christianity is about light. Just as Jesus is light to the world, so his church is to be light in a world of darkness. Light enables the beauty of things to be seen, and we are called to make the beauty of the world shine. But we are not to call attention to ourselves: if you are aware of the light in a room, it is too bright. Our vocation is for others, not ourselves.
Surrounded by discrimination, oppression and war, Christians are challenged to “be united in mind and judgment,” and they are directed by God’s love to “bring humankind to unity and peace.” The light we bring to the world should lead in time to an end of all the world’s darkness: the alienation and oppression of peoples, the attacks on human life and dignity, and disrespect for God’s creation.
This should remind us that we need to give to the poor, not simply because they need it, though they do, but unless we give to the poor, we cannot be healthy ourselves. When we give to the poor both charity and justice are served. But, some healthy self-interest is served as well. We cannot be healthy or happy unless we share our riches, of every kind, with the poor. This truth is written inside our human experience and inside every authentic ethical and faith tradition in existence.
In the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus reveals what will be greatest for the final judgment, his single set of criteria have entirely to do with how we take care of the poor: “Did you feed the hungry? Give drink to the thirsty? Cloth the naked?” Even more strongly, in the story of the widow who gives her last two pennies away, Jesus challenges us to not only give of our surplus to the poor, but to also give away some of what we need to live on. The Gospels, and the rest of the Christian scriptures, strongly challenge us to give to the poor—We see this same message, consistent and repeated, in the social doctrine of the Catholic Church.
The promise in this week’s first reading is that as we share our abundance with those less fortunate our light will “break forth like the dawn” also. Many times, we refrain from sharing with others because we don’t think we have an abundance, or we often see our own situation as rather bleak. However, as we take our eyes off of our need and focus on meeting the needs of others, we will discover that the darkness and gloom of our situation will dissipate as well, and God’s light will also break through for us.
God is still repairing broken lives in our broken world. All that is necessary is in place for broken lives to be repaired, put in place by a reconciling Savior who heals. Jesus knows, first hand, the darkness of our world because he lived in it, suffered from it, and then took that darkness on himself to redeem us from it. Later in the year we will celebrate at dawn his resurrection. The light of dawn represents the hope that Jesus, the Light of the world, brings to our darkened world.
Today, many people live in places of such dark desolation and despair, that their spiritual condition receives little or no attention, for everything is simply focused on their physical survival. As light bearers, we have been placed in our broken world to expedite the healing of broken lives.
A man once stood before God, his heart breaking from the pain and injustice in the world. ‘Dear God,’ he cried out, ‘look at all the suffering, the anguish and distress in your world. Why don’t you send help?’ God responded, ‘I did send help. I sent you.’ When we tell our children that story, we must tell them that each one of them was sent to help repair the broken world—and that, “it is not the task of an instant or of a year, but of a lifetime.”
God often brings the light of dawn to people sitting in darkness through you and me, as we lovingly share his words of help and encouragement and as we do those things that ease the weight of darkness. Christ came sharing the truth, but he also came meeting the real needs of people.
“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”
— St. Catherine of Siena