Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
February 6, 2005
Is 58:7-10; 1Cor 2:1-5; Mt 5:13-16
1) Over the past two weeks, as we’ve gotten ready for tonight’s Super Bowl, there has been a lot of attention on the secret to the Patriots’ remarkable success over the past few years. Lots of reasons have been given. Yes, they have some great players and unsung heroes. Yes, they play as a team, and not just as a collection of individual stars. But I think the simplest and the most accurate reason was articulated by Tedy Bruschi in an interview last week. It involves two rather obvious elements: first, the coaches come up with a great plan each week and, second, the players execute that game plan. The Patriots have excelled at both. Without a great strategy each week, or without the player’s implementation of those tactics, the Patriots would be at home today rather than in Jacksonville.
2) Well, Jesus came from heaven to earth to found a team and he drafted each of us onto that team by baptism. We’re playing not just for a Super Bowl ring and earthly fame, but for an imperishable wreath (1Cor 9:25) and eternal glory. He has given us a play book far more brilliant than any one Bill Belichick has ever designed. But that play book alone isn’t enough for victory. We, like the Patriots, need to execute that salvific game plan. Unsurprisingly, that plan involves both DEFENSE and OFFENSE, as we see in today’s Gospel.
3) First, the defense: “You are the salt of the earth.” When most people think of salt today, they think only of something that adds flavor to food. But in Jesus’ time, it had a much more important purpose. In an age without refrigeration, salt was the principal preservative. It was mixed with meat and fish to keep them from going bad. In using this image about his followers, Jesus was describing that we were to have a certain antiseptic influence on life. Mixed with everyone else in the world, we are supposed to prevent their going bad. We are to keep the earth from moral putrefaction. We are the defense to the offensive and corrupting germs that come from various sources.
4) We all know that there are certain people in whose presence it is easy to be good. Even sometimes without saying a word, they bring out our best behavior. We know, too, that there are people who corrupt those around them, who never fail to pass on a bad story, who drag conversation into the gutter, who encourage others to sin. And we know that there are a lot of people who just seem to be bland, who don’t seem to have much of an influence — good or bad — on those around them. It’s obvious which of the three types Jesus was. And it’s obvious which of the three he wants to characterize us.
a) This starts at an individual level. Just as the Patriots players all say, “We’ve got a job to do,” so each of us individually needs to do our part. By our speech, we’re called to raise the standard of conversation and keep it at a level that’s always charitable and honest. By our conduct, we’re called to show the beauty of goodness and hard work. Even in our thoughts, which influence our speech and conduct, we’re called to keep them free from germs. We can ask God in conscience whether we’ve been salty or slackers in this regard.
b) But Jesus says that we are to be the salt of the earth together as well. (When Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth,” he uses the plural). He wants his Church, his team, to be effective in preventing corruption in the world. And we likewise have to ask — as Catholics in every place and at every time must — how saline the Church as a whole has been lately in this part of the earth we call home. We can examine three areas:
- Rhode Island and Massachusetts are the two most numerically Catholic states in the nation, with Catholics comprising in each more than 50% of the population; yet these are the two states with the highest per capita abortion rates in the land. How salty have we been?
- God gave us the beautiful gift of marriage as the primordial sacrament where a man and a woman are joined in one flesh for life. Yet last year in our state — which is majority Catholic — we allowed marriage to be redefined as an institution where you no longer even need a man and a woman, where children created from the loving physical union of spouses are considered irrelevant. Would Jesus say we’ve been implementing his game plan to prevent society from going bad?
- God gave us children as a supreme blessing and taught us that whenever we receive a child in his name we receive him (Mt 18:5). He added that it would be better for us to be drowned by a millstone than to cause one of his little ones to stumble (Lk 17:2). Yet, WITHIN the Church, for decades, we didn’t root out the horror of child sexual abuse. Could there be any way we could be the salt of the EARTH, of those on the outside, when we couldn’t prevent such evil within?
5) Jesus warned us lest our salt lose its flavor and be fit for nothing but to be thrown out and trampeled upon. Worthless salt is like a defense that can’t stop an opponent from scoring. Salt goes bad, as we know from our inorganic chemistry, when the sodium is dissociated from the chloride. By analogy we can say that we as salt go bad when we cease to adhere to Christ. He is the one who keeps us from being corrupted and makes it possible for us to prevent others from going bad. For our salt to remain fresh, we must continually renew ourselves in him. It is he who is the true salt of the earth, and we need to remain attached to him, like anion to cation, like body to its head, in order to fulfill the mission he has given us.
6) Now we turn to the OFFENSE in Jesus’ game plan. He wants us to do more than to prevent our opponents from scoring, but he wants us to advance the ball, to be a model that leads others to happiness, to holiness, to heaven. He sums this up in his phrase: “You are the light of the world.” With this phrase, Jesus is explicitly having us continue his own mission. Before he called us the light of the world, he said that he was the Light of the world (Jn 8:12). The great saints have said that Jesus, in essence, wants us to reflect his light, which means to reflect his love. To be the light of the world, we need to imitate his loving deeds. Jesus makes that clear in today’s Gospel: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your GOOD WORKS and give glory to your Father in heaven.” The first reading tells us what some of those good works will look like: “Share your bread with the hungry; shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own. THEN YOUR LIGHT SHALL BREAK FORTH LIKE THE DAWN.” We saw this truth put into action in the life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the brilliance of whose deeds of love for the poorest of the poor radiated like a new dawn throughout the globe. In the responsorial psalm, we affirmed that “the just man is a light in the darkness for the upright,” and each of us is called, like Christ, to be that just man, to be that just woman, to be that light. Our deeds are meant to set a contagious standard of goodness that can attract other people to imitate them, just like Christ’s deeds and love have inspired us to imitate him.
7) But just as our salt can go bad, Jesus says that we can fail to illumine the world around us. We can cover our faith with a bushel basket, which makes us as effective as a talented quarterback who hides himself on the sidelines. For us to reflect Christ’s light, we need to bear fruit in deeds of love; in order to bear fruit, we need to remain fixed to Christ, as he himself told us: “I am the vine and you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). This makes eminent sense. If we truly remain in Christ and his love, we will look forward to every opportunity to share that love with those around us. And if our love is true, it will bear the marks of crucifixion, for Christ taught us by word and example that true love is the capacity to lay down one’s life for another (Jn 15:13). True love is the capacity to sacrifice and to suffer for the beloved. Therefore the path to keep our light radiant is the same as that to keep our salt fresh: it’s to remain affixed to Christ crucified, as St. Paul did and proclaimed in the second reading. As a football player punishes his body and pounds his mind to get himself into position to execute the coach’s game plan, so we need to push ourselves to remain attached to Christ crucified through sacrificing of ourselves for him and for others. We need to read the playbook he gave us in the Bible and in the teachings of the Church he founded. We need to encourage our other teammates to do the same, and play with them rather than against them in fulfilling the game plan. Victory depends on all of these.
8 ) Jesus believes in us more than even Belichick believes in his team. Christ wouldn’t have given us his mission to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world unless he knew that we, attached to him, were fit for the task. As we try with his help to execute his game plan for the salvation of the world, he nourishes us with something far more potent than power-bars and Gatorade. May we, strengthened by him, work individually and as a team, so that one day we might enter with him and with our teammates into the eternal hall of fame.