Living Up to Our Vocation to be Salt and Light, Fifth Sunday (A), February 9, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
February 9, 2014
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: 

Hearing the Sermon on the Mount the Way Jesus Preached It, as a Whole

Two years ago, I had the great privilege to go to the Holy Land with 52 parishioners and family members for an awesome pilgrimage in Jesus’ footsteps. The day we arrived, we were scheduled for Mass at the Mount of the Beatitudes where Jesus gave us the Sermon on the Mount, including the words of today’s Gospel. But there was so much traffic on a two-lane Israeli highway that we ended up arriving just in Mass and Mass was scheduled right before the whole Mount of the Beatitudes closed for the night. Many of the pilgrims begged me to try to arrange the schedule so that we could come back so that they could have a chance to walk around the beautiful grounds, look at the tremendous panorama of the Sea of Galilee and to pray. A few days later we were able to return for a 90-minute visit. I told the pilgrims they were totally on their own to do whatever they wanted, but if anyone was interested, I would be happy to use one of the outdoor chapels on the grounds to cover with them, over the course of an hour, all Jesus taught during the Sermon on the Mount. To my great surprise, almost all the pilgrims came, including the best photographers who were giving up a resplendent day in one of the most picturesque places in the Holy Land. And we dove into what Jesus taught us all on that mountainside, with questions-and-answers, applications and more. When we had the reunion after our return and talked about the highlights, I was stunned how many people said that as incredible as the experiences were of having Mass inside Jesus’ tomb, or on Calvary, or in the Shepherd’s cave in Bethlehem or where he was conceived in Nazareth, the greatest highlight of all, they said, was returning to the Mount of the Beatitudes to hear Jesus give us his most important teaching about the Christian life. They said that they had never really considered the Sermon on the Mount as a whole before and that hearing it explained all together, seeing how all the pieces of it connected, was one of the most exhilarating experiences of their entire Christian education. They told me they’d never be able to hear the Sermon on the Mount the same way again.

In order really to grasp the full meaning of the Sermon on the Mount, as they attested, it is very helpful to understand it as a whole. The problem for Catholics, however, is that we seldom have a chance to do that. Jesus’ most famous sermon, found in St. Matthew’s Gospel, only appears in the Sunday readings once every three years and it is broken down over six weeks from the Fourth to the Ninth Sundays in Ordinary Time. It’s extremely rare, however, that Catholics celebrate all six weeks. Sometimes, like last week, we have feasts like the celebration of the Presentation, which cut out one of the parts of the Sermon on the Mount. Far more frequently is that Lent begins somewhere in the middle of the cycle and we lose several of the latter parts. Three years ago was the first time since 1984 that Catholics were able to hear all six parts of the Sermon on the Mount at Sunday Mass. The next time we’ll have all six on consecutive Sundays will be in 2038, when I’ll be 68, God-willing, and some of our altar servers won’t just be parents but perhaps even young grandparents.

I go through all of this because if you really want to be able to plumb the depths of what Jesus is going to be saying to us in the Sermon on the Mount this year — and I hope you do — it’s going to require some extra work. Because Lent starts on March 5, we’re lucky enough to be able to hear four of the six weeks, but we are missing the beginning and most important part of all, the Beatitudes, and we’ll also be missing Jesus’ dramatic conclusion. In order to remedy those gaps, and give a much greater sense of the whole, I’ve printed in the bulletin this week basically what I would have preach last week if we didn’t have the Feast of the Presentation (see the homily for January 29, 2011). And on March 2, when we’ll cover the fifth part of this Sermon, I’ll print an extended reflection of what we won’t end up hearing because of the beginning of Lent (see the homily for March 6 ,2011). I would ask and encourage you to take those reflections to your prayer in the hope that they’ll help you truly get a sense of what the pilgrims got two years ago in the Holy Land, by seeing how all the parts of the Sermon on the Mount connect to each other.

The Christian Difference

What’s the main point of the Sermon on the Mount? It’s that Jesus calls us as his followers to be different than all the rest, to live by a different set of standards than good pagans who love those who love them and are good to those who are good to them, to be different and to have our righteousness surpass that of the most fervent Jewish scribes and Pharisees. He calls us throughout the Sermon on the Mount, in short, to be like him, to be like his Father, to be holy.

He begins this “Magna Carta of the Christian life” with the beatitudes, which, as you’ll see in the bulletin reflection, highlight the difference his wisdom and the world’s, between the path we’re called to walk and the path that others walk. Whereas the world thinks we have to be rich to be happy, Jesus says we need to be poor in spirit and treasure his kingdom above everything. Whereas the world thinks we have to be a sexual phenom to be fulfilled, Jesus says we need to be pure of heart. Whereas the world things we have to be powerful to be successful, Jesus says we need to be meek and not just a peace-wisher but a peace-maker. Whereas the world says we should aspire to be popular and have everyone like us, Jesus says we should rejoice when everybody persecutes us because of our fidelity to him. There’s almost no greater way to describe how different we’re supposed to be than all the rest than by saying that we, like Jesus, are called to be men and women, boys and girls, who not only know the beatitudes but live them.

The Mission that Flows from our Christian Difference

In today’s section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes the mission we receive from that difference. 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, as Pope Francis has been constantly reminding us, 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. Jesus calls us to be different from the world not in the sense of thinking ourselves superior to the world or remaining aloof from others; rather he intends us to be distinguished by our union with him and because of that loving union, we’ll feel impelled by Christ from within to collaborate with him, as salt and light, to save the world. 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. The key for us is whether we are faithful to it and live it, whether we live the beatitudes and Jesus’ other teachings, whether we distinguish ourselves from all the rest by our conformity to Christ.

In order to understand what this mission entails more clearly, though, we need to grasp the images Jesus used and what they meant when he used them.

Salt of the Earth

When Jesus called his followers and us 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:

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. Imagine if Pope Francis were to come and live in your home this week. Would your behavior change? In most homes, people would police their language, they’d speak more about faith, they’d make opportunities to serve others. That’s what Jesus is calling all of us to do. Are we the types of people who lift others to better behavior? 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, to bring joy, to the earth. 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, not just at the end of Midnight Mass on Christmas but throughout the year.

Making Sure Our Salt Doesn’t Go Insipid

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.

With regard to preserving the world from corruption, when we’re separated from Christ, we can instead bring the world’s corruption into the Church and let it fester and get worse. This is obviously what happened with those priests and bishops who were involved in the clergy sex abuse crisis, but far beyond these atrocities, there are priests and religious who have simply lost their way, not living in any way consistent with the sacrament of holy orders or their religious consecration, because they are no longer aspiring to live totally united with Christ.

A similar breakdown can happen in the lives of any of us. Christian marriages can break down when one spouse or both begin to lose their union with Christ, and then rather than helping to preserve the world, rather than transforming popular culture, rather than helping the world to see in their love a glimpse of the spousal Christ has for his bride the Church, they can begin to be transformed by the anti-evangelical parts of culture and show the same rates of abuse, adultery, divorce and other problems that non-Catholic couples have.

A similar thing can happen in Catholic parishes. One of the reasons why so many parishes in Massachusetts have had to close is not simply because the population has shifted from cities to the suburbs, but because many Catholics have had their bond with Christ severed by not praying, by not coming to Mass, by not receiving Jesus’ forgiveness, by not seeking to unite one’s whole life to Christ. When only one out of seven Catholics comes to Mass on Sunday — which is the rate in Massachusetts — not only is it going to be hard for Catholics to be the salt of the earth but it’s going to be hard for many parishes to survive. When Catholics begin to lose their bond with Christ, when we lose our preservative function and become corrupted rather than prevent corruption, Jesus says that we’re basically fit just to be thrown away because, to a large degree, we’re already throwing our lives away.

With regard to being fire starter, when we lose our bond with Christ, we will often go about the faith with no fire at all. We might still be going through the motions of our faith, but we are not doing so with passion and for that reason won’t be able to light any body else on fire.

With respect to bringing flavor and joy to the world, when we lose our saltiness and tight connection with Jesus, we will cease to season the world but often begin to take on the insipid flavor of what we come into contact with. We will begin, for example, to identify far more with the lifestyles and aspirations of celebrities on the front cover of People Magazine than we will the great figures of the Bible or heroic saints of the faith. We wo’t bring joy and enthusiasm to what we do, even to our encounter with Christ at the Mass. We behave like the frozen chosen rather than the excited followers of the One who has achieved the greatest victory in the history of the world.

I’m sure most of you watched at least some of the Super Bowl last Sunday. One of the story lines both leading up to the Super Bowl as well as during the Super Bowl concerned Seattle’s “twelfth man,” the term used to describe Seattle’s fans, who are by far the most vociferous fans in the NFL. No team wants to travel to Seattle because their cheering can become so loud — 110 decibels — that no opposing team can hear the signals on offense. The twelfth man was present in the Meadlowlands last Sunday, something we saw on Denver’s first play from scrimmage when the center couldn’t hear Peyton Manning leading to a safety. Well, if we’re truly the Salt of the Earth, we should be more passionate for Jesus than the most fired up Seahawks fan is for the new NFL champions. Imagine if you were watching the SuperBowl last week with one of these fans from Seattle, how that person’s excitement would have rubbed off on you. That’s the way our enthusiasm for the faith should rub off on others who attend Mass with us, who work with us, who go to school with us, who do anything with us.

In order to maintain our saltiness, however, we need to maintain our bond with Jesus. The question is: How do we that? We do it, 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. That’s one of the reasons why I’m convinced Jesus is so happy we’ve begun Eucharistic adoration here, because spending an hour with him a week is a great means not only to maintain our bond with him but to make it stronger. If you wish to live up to your vocation to be the salt of the earth, time for prayer with Jesus like so many parishioners are now doing is not just a good suggestion but essential.

The Light of the World

The second attribute Jesus describes today of our mission, of what distinguishes us from others, is that we are called to be the light of the world. Because we pondered the reality of this call already three times in the last month — on the Feast of the Lord’s baptism on January 12, when Jesus fulfilled Isaiah’s words about Zebulun and Naphthali’ seeing a great light two weeks ago, and last week on the Presentation as Simeon called Jesus the Light of Revelation to the Gentiles, a light that he passed on to us at our baptism — it’s not necessary to spend as much time understanding this truth today. But what I do want to ponder is the big picture of what Jesus is saying. 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 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. Just think about Blessed Mother Teresa. Her love and that of her Missionaries of Charity have brought so many, including so many non-Christians, to praise God. The same thing is happening with Pope Francis, in his embracing the outcasts, the handicapped, the homeless and reaching out via the telephone to so many who are hurting throughout the world is showing us not only the light of love of Christ but also setting an example of kindness for the whole world to follow. That’s what we’re called to do in our own situations. And we will radiate Christ’s light when we carry out the deeds we heard about in today’s first reading, sharing our bread with the hungry, welcoming the homeless into our home, covering the naked, caring for our relatives. If we offer our food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, Isaiah tells us, then our light shall rise in the darkness and we will be like the noonday Sun in the midst of gloom.

Not Hiding the Light of our Faith that Jesus Calls us to Radiate

For this to occur, Jesus tells us, we need to ensure that the light of our light doesn’t remain hidden. Our light is supposed to illumine others, not be hidden under a bushel basket or false humility, or peer pressure or shame to live as a Christian. Our faith is meant to be visible. There are some Christians who are afraid to live their faith in a public way, who succumb to secularist intimidation to keep their faith private and hidden in a closet. Their acquaintances know far more about what they think of sports or the weather or politics than what they believe about Christ. Our faith, however, those intensely personal, is not supposed to be private. It’s supposed to be a light for others. In fact, it’s supposed to be the most noticeable thing about us, the first thing our family members or friends or fellow students or workers will say about us, that we remind them a little or a lot of Jesus, the way the world says this about Pope Francis.

This morning, Pope Francis finished his Angelus Meditation in St. Peter’s Square by saying that whether we radiate this light of Christ to the world is the real sign of whether we’re Christians in fact or just in name. He said, “The Christian must be a luminous person, who brings light, who always gives off light, a light that’s not his own but is a gift of God, a gift of Jesus. We bear this light. If a Christian loses this light, his life has no meaning: the Christian without light is a Christian only in name.” He then went on to say to the 50,000 people assembled in St. Peter’s Square for his Sunday blessing: “I want to ask you all right now: how do you want to live? As a light that has been turned on or a light turned off? As a lit lamp or an extinguished one? How do you want to live?” The multitudes shouted up to him, “Accesa!,” the Italian world for “Lit!” or “Turned on” or “On fire.” Pope Francis was happy with their enthusiastic commitment. He finished saying, “That’s right, [we want to be] a light that burns! It’s God’s that gives us this light and we who give it to others. A lit lamp! That’s our Christian vocation!”

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. 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 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.

“How do you want to live?,” Jesus asks us through his earthly vicar today. May we all respond with enthusiasm and conviction, “As the Salt of the Earth and the Light of the World!” Amen!

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
IS 58:7-10

Thus says the LORD:
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.

Responsorial Psalm
PS 112:4-5, 6-7, 8-9

R/ (4a) The just man is a light in darkness to the upright.
R/ Alleluia.
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.
R/ Alleluia.
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.
R/ Alleluia.
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.
R/ Alleluia.

Reading 2
1 COR 2:1-5

When I came to you, brothers and sisters,
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.

MT 5:13-16

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.”