Fifth Sunday (A)
(Isaiah 58:7-10; 1st. Corinthians 2:1-5; Matthew 5:13-16.)
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, if you take your mind back to our first reading from the prophet Isaiah you will recall the words:
Then will your light shine like the dawn and your wound be quickly healed over. Your integrity will go before you and the glory of the Lord behind you.
There, once again -- and following on from last week -- we have the word “integrity” opening the way for that devilishly human pride which bases itself on “my integrity”, my personal, my professional, integrity. No other versions of the bible that I can find use that word “integrity”; they all, once again, translate the Greek word involved as “righteousness”, a word which speaks, not of us, but of God, for righteousness is God’s prerogative, it is His gift, and the result of His healing. And that is precisely what the prophet is speaking about when he says, “your wound will be quickly healed over”, for In this reading healing is in question: God wants to heal sinners from the sting of sin and the wound of pride; by His help they will recover, and that recovery will be backed up subsequently by the glory of the Lord. All is God’s gift, there is no room here for proud assertions of personal integrity; for God’s healing is not like the work of some picture restorer, cleaning away the grime of ages and revealing the original beauty of some painting in all its integrity; on the contrary, by His gift of divine righteousness God is -- for Jesus’ sake -- saving what we have most seriously blemished, and bestowing what we have never known:
Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
This healing of the sting of sin and the wound of pride thanks to God’s merciful gift to us in Jesus, this abiding and sure protection given by His glory which follows us, is the source and the shield of our “righteousness”, that righteousness which makes us, “the salt of the earth”, and “the light of the world”. And this our light, must shine in the sight of men, not as a witness to our personal integrity, but, as Jesus said, to “glorify your Father in heaven”, whereby we become living members of Him Who summed up His whole life in the words:
(Father) I have glorified You on the earth. I have finished the work which You have given Me to do (John 17:4);
living members of Him Who wanted even His final act of dying on the Cross to serve the very same end:
Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son also may glorify You (John 17:1).
And so, in order to fulfil our vocation as members of that beloved Son, we have to recognise that we are special, not as a result of our own personal integrity but by God’s special gift to us in Jesus; a gift we have received because we have a special work to do in the world, with Jesus, for the Father:
You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavour, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.
Our realising that “righteousness” is the gift of God thus becomes tantamount to the awareness of our “responsibility” before God: we cannot allow our life in Christ to become tasteless by adopting worldly standards. If we look closely at Jesus’ choice of words to describe His disciples: ‘salt of the earth’ and ‘light of the world’ we will understand that both ‘salt’ and ‘light’ are self-less words, so to speak. Salt in the ancient world was widely used to preserve food items, and even today to give ‘taste’ to food; of itself salt is nothing. Likewise, light serves to illuminate whatever is there for us to see and, of itself, apart from the things it illuminates, light is nothing. That self-less character which Jesus would like to see in His disciples was well exemplified in the first reading, where Isaiah advised:
If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness; if you extend your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul; then your light shall dawn in the darkness, and your darkness shall be as the noonday.
Paul, likewise, told us that he deliberately centred his converts’ faith on Jesus by making himself and his preaching as unpretentious as possible:
Brethren, when I came to you, I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
Paul, ‘salt of the earth’, sought to preserve his converts by proclaiming and glorifying not himself but Jesus, alone and entirely.
One of the characteristics of some modern, self-styled religious, people is that, first and foremost, they are looking to get something out of religion for themselves, here and now. They want to hear and experience something new, something that will, hopefully, free them from the weariness of what they have long been aware of and accustomed to yet have never known or experienced. They want to feel the power and know the excitement of being swept along by supercharged communal emotions or the surreal, oriental, bliss of being surrounded and lulled by a scented and gently swirling fog of mystery. Such people are -- possibly unaware to themselves -- centred on their own earthly feelings and experiences, and they find Christianity which speaks of a transcendent God quite boring, especially when the Christian message is proclaimed with clarity to their minds while they are hoping to have their emotions directly addressed with their minds left comfortably disengaged.
The apostle Paul said that, being acutely conscious of his own personal weakness, He proclaimed the mystery of God ‘in fear and much trembling’, desiring above all that his people's faith should rest on the power of God, not on the wisdom or cleverness of men who can speak words that are almost salacious in their ability to delight and sway their hearers.
But there, you might think, is something that needs further explanation:
Paul speaks of the power of God, and displays of power are, surely, just what our worldly religious people want to see and experience?
Yes, that is indeed the case. But the power of God of which St. Paul speaks is never displayed: it is, indeed, sometimes exercised for the encouragement and benefit of people in particular circumstances hearing the testimony of God for the first time, or, striving – under difficulties -- to live according to His teaching. However, God's exercise of power on such occasions and for such people is not a display of spiritual fireworks to make all who witness it gape, but rather a rare and short-term intensification of what is God’s continuous and invisible battle in and through the Church for the minds and hearts of men and women of all times and all cultures against the abusive and tyrannical rule of Satan over this world; for there is no power other than that normally unseen power of God’s grace in Jesus’ Gospel through the Church that can rescue mankind from their fallen, sinful, state. Today, in our affluent society, we see the awful consequences arising for ordinary individuals when society as a whole acquiesces under the power of Satan and opts for the wages of sin: ever more and more disgusting and degrading exuberances of evil appear in our midst against which the miserable fig-leaves of human self-righteousness and the rule of politically-correct law are powerless to control, let alone redress.
People of God, Christians, above all Catholics, have to try to be salt of the earth and light of the world. Salt was used, as I said, in the ancient world to preserve food from corruption; and those disciples of Jesus who do not resist the corruption of evil, have become like tasteless salt, as Jesus said:
good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.
Likewise, a light is meant to show the way, to lead in the right direction. Catholics who do not, in any way, lead along that way, but always follow, consistently excusing themselves saying that 'what everyone else is doing can't be that bad', are not true Catholics, not authentic disciples of Jesus, at all, and too many of them, sadly, end up indulging themselves in the pleasures of darkness: they follow the pagan majority into fornication, divorce, adultery, and contraception; they steal, they malign, and they lie. Indeed, there are some who do such things and then parade their personal integrity – and consummate their sin -- by receiving the Eucharist with oodles and oodles of hypocrisy but no confession, no contrition.
People of God, be simple and sincere before God in all your dealings, and do not fail to be quietly but totally confident in Jesus’ promise that, because you are His disciples, you are indeed the salt of the earth and the light of the world, and all the witness that you bear for Jesus will, ultimately, bring forth fruit both ‘pleasant and desirable’ for God’s people. Do not be eaten up with concern for yourself and your standing among men, but rather, trying to be true to Jesus and His teaching in Mother Church, trust in God and allow Him to take care of you, for He is the unfailing Shepherd of His flock. In that way the prophecy of Isaiah will be verified in you and for you:
Your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, 'Here I am.'