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Friday, 7 February 2014

Fifth Sunday of the Year (A)


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

               You are the salt of the earth.
With those words, Jesus wanted to impress upon His disciples an awareness of their dignity and responsibility.

You, He says – not the official representatives of the Jewish Synagogue – You who are following and hearing Me, You who are perhaps beginning to order your lives according to My words and not according the traditions of the Pharisees and their Scribes,

            You are the salt of the earth.

Salt was, in those days, obtained from evaporated pools by the shore of the Dead Sea, or from small lakes on the edge of the Syrian Desert which dry up in the summer.  This salt crust, dug from the soil, contained various impurities which, when the salt was dissolved and removed, remained as useless refuse.

Could that be the possibly double meaning of those mysterious following words of Jesus:

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; 

a reference perhaps, on the one hand, to the obvious fact that once the original clod of salty earth had lost its salt content nothing but useless refuse remained; while, on the other hand, hinting at possibly disastrous consequences if disciples were to lose their purified saltiness.

However that may be, notice that Jesus’ words do not have the same connotation as our modern expression ‘salt of the earth’.  Jesus’ words are based on literal fact: it was earthy salt, salty soil, which could, indeed, yield life protecting and health preserving salt, but which, for such a purpose, needed to be purified first of all.  Those disciples whom Jesus was addressing as ‘salt of the earth’ were actually following Him around and gladly listening to His words; and they, Jesus was saying, could be purified from their earthy contagions and become pure salt for His  and for God’s purposes, if, that is, their following Him were to become obedience to Him, and if their hearing of His words were to develop into appreciation and understanding of them, and ultimately, to faith in Himself.

Disciples who are true followers, true lovers, of Christ, can never be artificial, hot-house, characters -- the anaemic products of human wit and conniving, pride and presumption – no, they are of the earth, gotten from the  humanity created by God, and found originally ‘good’ in His sight; as such they can be cleansed of supervening sin and become fully and most truly human, indeed, salt of the earth in the way we commonly mean the expression, if and when their sinful impurities are cleansed away by the washing of Jesus’ original Word of God which, even now in our days, is still to be heard in Mother Church, and can be accepted and embraced in the power of His Spirit still bestowed through her sacraments.

            Now, you are clean by reason of the word I have spoken to you. (Jn. 15:3)

Jesus then went on to tell them:

You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.
The picture of a city on a hill- or mountain-top, stems from the message of the Old Testament prophets (cp. Isaiah 2:2–3) concerning the future rule of God:

In days to come, the mountain of the LORD’S house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills.  All nations shall stream toward it; many peoples shall come and say: “Come, let us climb the LORD’S mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that He may instruct us in His ways, and we may walk in His paths.”  For from Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 

From the heavenly Jerusalem -- the city of God set on top of the highest mountain and sheltering the house of God -- the new Law will come; and such a prospect causes the prophet to burst out joyfully (60:1-3):

Rise up in splendour! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you and over you appears His glory.  Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance. 

And in today’s Gospel passage we hear Jesus saying to His disciples:  

You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden   Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father. 

The light of this city, the city of God, shining, as the prophets foretold, in the darkness of the world, cannot be hidden; that is quite simply impossible, for it is illuminated by the glory of the Lord.  Jesus’ true disciples are authentic denizens of that city and so they too cannot fail to shine out -- or in more modern terms, stand out -- from today’s masses who worship the world and, through their eager embracing of its ethos and compliance with its rules, hope to taste all that it seems to offer them.

Notice however, that the disciples of Jesus do not have to make strenuous efforts to be seen by men; indeed, Our Blessed Lord Himself has warned them:

Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. (Matthew 6:1)

For our purposes, however, a more literal translation from the Greek and the Latin Vulgate, puts it most pertinently:

Take care not to perform your righteous deeds to be seen (you yourself and your righteous deeds) by them.

Our Lord, therefore, said that, on the one hand, our light must shine in the sight of men, but He also told us to be careful not to make a show of our religion, our religiosity, before men … in other words, our works must shine out but we ourselves must not seek to seen and esteemed by men, nor cantankerously ‘stand out’ against them. The light of the city of God shines out by itself, and in the same way, the light of its inhabitants – the true disciples of, and witnesses to, Christ – will not fail to shine and be seen, because they are a light set burning by God Himself, and Our Lord solemnly assures us:

No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. 

God lights the lamp of Christ’s disciples in order that it may give light to all the children in His house, and our endeavour should be that in everything we may be true to the soil from which we are dug – God’s original creation and the unity of Christian fellowship – and true to the purifying word of Christ, so that we:

(may) be found in Him, not having any righteousness of (our) own based on the law but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God, depending on faith. (Philippians 3:9)

What a sad comment on our times it is to think that those words of St. Paul can be interpreted today in a way he would not recognize because the ‘law’ of which he spoke was originally the law of God.  Today, however, in our Western, God-declining and self-worshipping, democratic societies, people acknowledge and children are taught only a ‘law’ emanating from governmental authority and supported by popular acceptance; societies in which people increasingly dare no longer publicly acknowledge, or perhaps no longer even appreciate, a moral difference between right and wrong, only acknowledging what is legal and permitted, as distinct from what is unlawful and unapproved, unsafe and unpopular.

Let us look a little more closely at those who were addressed as ‘You’ in Jesus’ words?  Crowds had come to Him and we are told that:

When He saw the crowds, He went up the mountain, and after He had sat down, His disciples came to Him. 

Then He pronounced what we call ‘The Beatitudes’ speaking in general of ‘those who mourn’, ‘the meek’, even ‘those who are persecuted’ but He only became directly personal in His words when He said:

Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you (falsely) because of Me.

That is the ‘You’ to whom He then went on to say, ‘You are the salt of the earth.’  And so, even those suffering persecution for the name of Jesus (alas, how many of them there are in our days!) are called upon to keep their ‘saltiness’, that is, their native human one-ness with and love for their fellows, including even their persecutors, and also, and indeed above all, keep and strive ever more devoutly to deepen and strengthen their fidelity to the purifying word of Christ, as they witness to Him thanks to God’s abiding Gift of the Spirit of Jesus, ever with us and for us in the proclamation and sacraments  of Mother Church.

That was the model Paul himself gave, as we heard in the second reading:

When I came to you, brothers, proclaiming the mystery of God, I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom.  For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.  I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive (words of) wisdom, but with a demonstration of spirit and power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. 

There we can understand why Jesus told His disciples, ‘Take care not to perform your righteous deeds to be seen by them’, because our witness – limited though it be – must be the work of, and should promote:

Not human wisdom but the power of God

active in us, and through us in the world and in the hearts of people around us.
And the very best way to fulfil that our vocation begins, every week, here at Mass in the house of the Lord, where we bring our human minds and hearts before Him, to be enlightened by His teaching, inflamed with His very presence, and endowed and empowered by the abiding Gift of His Most Holy Spirit.