Fr. Roger J. Landry
Gate of Heaven Convent of the Missionaries of Charity, Bronx
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
February 5, 2017
Is 58:7-10, Ps 112, 1Cor 2:1-5, Mt 5:13-16
To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below:
The following written text guided the homily:
The Christian Choice and Way
Today we enter the second Sunday of meditation on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which is his synthesis about how Christians are to live, how we are to imitate him. We’re lucky this year that Ash Wednesday is late (March 1), because it gives us a chance to hear six out of the seven parts of Jesus’ most famous sermon that the Church presents to us every third year when we hear St. Matthew’s Gospel. The seventh lesson we won’t have this year because we will be in Lent, but it’s the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus tells us that we need to choose whether wisely to build our life on the rock of the words he teaches us or foolishly on the sand of hearing and ignoring what he says. The whole Sermon can be framed in terms of that choice, between listening two and acting as Jesus indicates or letting it pass through the other ear.
Last week, Jesus began this lesson by giving us the Beatitudes. And there we see very clearly the stark choice that we must make. Jesus announces the path to happiness, and it’s clearly not the path of the world. The world says that to be happy, we must be rich, whereas Jesus says we need to be poor in spirit and treasure his kingdom; the world says we must be having a blast, whereas Jesus says that we must be so sensitive to others that we weep over their misfortune; the world says that we must be strong and dominate others whereas Jesus says we must be meek and a peacemaker; the world says that we mustn’t have a care in the world, whereas Jesus says we must be hungering and thirsting… for holiness; the world says we must have all our sexual fantasies fulfilled, whereas Jesus says we must be pure in heart and see him in others; the world says we must be popular, well-liked and famous, whereas Jesus says we’ll be happy when we’re persecuted and hated by all because of him. Whom do we trust, Jesus or the world? Which is the path we’re going to walk? Which is the path that Jesus is on calling us to follow him?
Becoming Who We Are
Today Jesus builds on the Beatitude by reminding us of our vocation and mission as Christians. With unforgettable, down-to-earth images, Jesus says that we have a double mission with respect to everyone else: to be the Salt of the Earth and the Light of the World. Notice, first what he doesn’t say: Jesus doesn’t calls us the salt or light of the Church, because our mission is to go out and transform the whole world, beginning, of course, with being transformed by Christ within the Church. If we’re not going out and striving to make disciples, we’re not really faithful disciples. If we’re not seeking to transform the world, we’re still clueless followers. Likewise, Jesus doesn’t say, “You must become the Salt of the Earth and the Light of the World.” He says, rather, “You are the Salt and Light.” This is very significant. By our baptism, we have already received this identity and vocation. In the Baptismal Rite our Baptismal candle is lit from the Paschal Candle showing that Christ, the Light of the World, has passed his light on to us to be kept burning brightly. And in the Extraordinary Form of Baptism, salt is still put into the baby’s or catechumen’s mouth in order to remind them that they are to be salt for the earth.
The key for us is whether we are faithful to this call and live this mission, whether we live the beatitudes, whether we live as salt and light. Jesus says today that our salt can lose its saltiness and our light can be hidden, in which case it’s not doing any good. So our Christian lives can lose their special Christian character. We know that this has happened to many. Today Jesus reminds us of who we are and wants to strengthen us to be whom he has made us to be by baptism. But to understand what our vocation and mission entails more clearly, we need to grasp the images Jesus used and what they meant when he used them.
The Light of the World
I’d like to begin with Jesus’ second image, because it’s a little clear. We are the light of the world. Three days ago on the Presentation, Simeon called Jesus the Light of Revelation to the Gentiles, and two weeks ago, we pondered how Jesus fulfilled Isaiah’s words about Zebulun and Naphthali’ seeing a great light. The truth is that he has passed that light on to us. He sends us out as the light of the world because the world is living in the midst of so much darkness: the darkness of grief, of physical pain, of broken hearts, of depression, of ignorance and of sin. Jesus sends us out to be light for this world in darkness. We sang in the responsorial psalm today, “The just man is a light in the darkness for the upright,” and Jesus calls each of us to be that light. Our presence is to help other people see better, to see things — and the most important things of all — as they really are.
How do we, however, effectively carry out this mission as light? Today’s Alleluia verse tells us. It features Jesus’ words from John 8: “The man who follows me will have the light of life.” Jesus himself is the light of the world and he calls us to reflect his light; the only way we can do that is to follow him. It’s not enough just to know him and his teachings. We need to follow him, to walk as he walked, to love as he loved, to care as he cares, to do as he has done. The way we give off light for others is by following Christ so that they can follow us along the path of light on which Christ himself is guiding us. We Christians are supposed to be like indicator lights on an airport runaway so that the people of the world in the midst of a ferocious storm at night don’t crash but can land safely on the airstrip of heaven. Jesus wants us to radiate what he teaches us about how to live well, how to love well, how to die well so as to live for other, to others, to enflesh his teaching to such a degree that others see the light of his way of life shining from within us almost without our even trying. Jesus tells us in the Gospel that the way we give off his light is through deeds of genuine Christian love that leads others, in seeing them, to glorify God.
That’s what we see in today’s first reading. Isaiah tells us our “light shall break forth like the dawn” and the “glory of the Lord shall be [our] rear guard” when we “share [our] bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless, clothe the naked when [we] see them, and do not turn [our] back on [our] own,” when we “remove from [our] midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech,” when we “bestow [our] bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted.” When we live charitably in this way, he reiterates, “then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday.” Christ-like love is the light the just man, the good woman, radiates. We saw this light in Saint Mother Teresa. Her love and that of her Missionaries of Charity have brought so many, including so many non-Christians, to glorify God, because God has made his glorification, to some degree, dependent on our deeds, our our actions that together with him give off light.
Today the choice is before us. God wants to bring us as lamps into every situation to give off his light, but we must follow Christ along the path to charity to become that light. Are we prepared to respond to his help to become the light of him who is the Light of the World?
Salt of the Earth
The second image Jesus uses today to describe our Christian vocation and task is “salt.” When Jesus called his first followers to be the salt of the earth, they would have understood it in three different ways, because there were three fundamental uses of salt in the ancient world. It’s important for us to understand each of them, because we’re called analogously to live with each of these qualities.
The first was as a preservative. Salt was used to preserve meat or fish from rotting. There was obviously no electricity and therefore refrigeration in the ancient world. If any fish or meat was going to last in the sweltering Middle Eastern climate, it needed to be salted. The salt was different than the meat or the fish, pointing to the fact that as Christians we’re supposed to be distinct from the world, in it but not of it. There was something more. There was an ancient saying that the animal and fish that were being preserved were already dead; salt would serve almost as a life-preserver, something that would keep the meat or fish filets from like likewise dying. It almost had a sense of the resurrection, giving them life whereas they, like the fish or animals from which they came, should be dead. All of this points to the fact that Jesus calls us to be his instrument to prevent the earth from going to corruption, from dying. We’re supposed to keep the world and others good. We all know that there are certain people who when they walk into a room keep others on their best behavior, not because others are afraid of them, but because they lift others to a higher standard by the way they themselves live. Jesus wants us to be like that person. Does our presence cause others to change behavior, to police their language, to speak more about faith, to find opportunities to serve others? Or are we inert or someone who by our thoughts, words and actions induce others toward worse conduct?
The second purpose of salt was to start a fire. I apologize if what I’m about to say will gross some people out, but it’s key to grasping what Jesus in teaching. At Jesus’ time, people would take animal dung, mix it with a lot of salt and then light it on fire. The dung alone couldn’t be ignited, but when it was mixed with salt, the salt would be able to be lit and then would gradually heat the dung, which kept heat for a really long time. Salt was the ancient equivalent of starter wood or lighter fluid for a barbecue. In calling us to be the Salt of the Earth in this way, Jesus is reminding us of two parts of our mission. First, we see in this use of salt that salt can redeem almost anything, even turning excrement into something good and useful. As Salt of the Earth we’re called to be God’s instrument for bringing good out of the evil we encounter, to help even those who were given over to evil to start producing something good. Secondly, salt is supposed to be a fire-starter. We are supposed to easily lit and capable of heating up others. Thus it is totally incompatible for us to be waiting for someone else to light a fire under us. We’re supposed to be the starter wood, the lighter fluid. We’re called to light the world ablaze. Do we by our presence inflame with love for God and others?
The third and final function of salt at Jesus’ time we’ve maintained today, to give flavor to the food we consume. A little bit of salt as we know can influence a whole meal. This points to the fact that we, as salt of the earth, are called to give flavor so that others can “taste and see the goodness of the Lord,” we’re supposed to bring joy. So many in the world think that to enjoy themselves, there has to be a frat house atmosphere, where there’s plenty of booze, drugs, dim lights, lots of willing members of the opposite sex and other types of behavior that leads people to hangovers, methodone treatments, STDs and other regrettable and preventable consequences. Jesus calls us to show what real joy in life is, to be people who are happy, who are truly blessed by living together with Jesus as the cause of our joy. We come here to Jesus who says to us each time, “I have come so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete!.” And we’re called to bring that joy to the world.
Jesus says, however, that for us to fulfill this mission as the Salt of the Earth we need to ensure that our salt doesn’t go flat. How does salt lose its saltiness? The biochemist in me will tell you that it happens when the sodium gets separated from the chloride by other cations and anions. How do we, as human beings, lose our saltiness? By getting separated from Christ by other persons or things, by the cations of positive things and pleasure or the anions of negative experiences, worries and the like. And when we get separated from Christ then we can begin to lose the three qualities our salt is meant to bring to the earth. In order to maintain our saltiness, we need to maintain our bond with Jesus. We do so, first, by a sacramental life, staying united to him in the Holy Eucharist, binding ourselves regularly to him by his mercy, living a Holy Life, staying united to him in charity, and especially remaining united with him in prayer. We do so by charity. We do so by making sure no part of our life is unconnected from Jesus.
I want to enhance our understanding of our vocation to be salt and light by mentioning briefly St. Paul’s words from today’s important second reading. He said that he had come among the Corinthians knowing and preaching nothing “except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Christ, he said earlier, is the “stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” but “to those who are called,” he is the “power and wisdom of God.” In worldly eyes, to be killed on the Cross was the except opposite of the Greek version of living and dying well; it was scandalous to the Jews who anticipated that the Messiah would drive out the Romans, not be ignominiously executed by them; but St. Paul was saying Christ Crucified is the manifestation of the power and wisdom of God’s love that was willing to suffer so much to save us.
There must therefore be a “cruciform” aspect to our living as Salt and Light. Denying ourselves, picking up our Cross and following Jesus is a way we prevent ourselves and others from going corrupt. It’s the way we spark the fire of Christ’s love continuously in the world. It’s the means by which we flavor every “plate” of human existence, adding self-denial and Christ-like love to every human experience. Christ’s cross, the love that envelopes it, and the resurrection after it, gives light to every human suffering. St. Paul himself fulfilled his vocation and mission to be salt and light by knowing and proclaiming Christ Crucified and we will fulfill our own when by yoking ourselves to Christ on the Cross, Jesus’ own salt and light will be shaken and radiate through us.
The Graces for this Dual Mission
Jesus, who today calls us anew to be the Salt of the Earth and the Light of the World in order to save the world and lead it on the path to light and life everlasting, wants to give us in the Mass all the graces he knows we need truly to live up to this vocation, to choose to build our life on the rock of this mission. He wants to give us his help to prevent our salt from losing its saltiness and our light from going out or being hidden. Let us open ourselves to receive that help and respond with courage — and go out to live as who we are by baptism and who he, with great love and confidence, constantly calls us to be, so that our whole life might glorify God and we may come, with so many others who have received through us Christ’s salt and light, to glorify God forever in heaven!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
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,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
your vindication shall go before you,
and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer,
you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!
If you remove from your midst
oppression, false accusation and malicious speech;
if you bestow your bread on the hungry
and satisfy the afflicted;
then light shall rise for you in the darkness,
and the gloom shall become for you like midday.
PS 112:4-5, 6-7, 8-9
Light shines through the darkness for the upright;
he is gracious and merciful and just.
Well for the man who is gracious and lends,
who conducts his affairs with justice.
R/ The just man is a light in darkness to the upright.
He shall never be moved;
the just one shall be in everlasting remembrance.
An evil report he shall not fear;
his heart is firm, trusting in the LORD.
R/ The just man is a light in darkness to the upright.
His heart is steadfast; he shall not fear.
Lavishly he gives to the poor;
His justice shall endure forever;
his horn shall be exalted in glory.
R/ The just man is a light in darkness to the upright.
1 COR 2:1-5
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.
Jesus said to his disciples:
“You are the salt of the earth.
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.
You are the light of the world.
A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.
Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket;
it is set on a lampstand,
where it gives light to all in the house.
Just so, your light must shine before others,
that they may see your good deeds
and glorify your heavenly Father.”