Brief synopsis of the readings: We return to Isaiah for our first reading. Through Isaiah, God calls us to share our bread with the hungry and shelter with the homeless. When we do this our “light will shine like the dawn and [our] wound will be quickly healed over.” We are then called to do away with “the yoke, the clenched fist, the wicked word.” If we do this our light will rise. Matthew’s Gospel continues last week’s reading and we are still reading the Sermon on the Mount. Here Jesus teaches that we are salt of the earth and light of the world. But we must allow our light to shine so that others will be attracted and give praise to God.
The first reading and the Gospel are normally linked but few are more closely linked than these two. The concept of charity and the need to feed the poor weaves its way through both the Old and New Testament. But here Isaiah gives us a twist: instead of giving our bread to the hungry we are instead called to share our bread with the hungry. In other words, charity, by itself, is not the fullness of what God calls us to: God requires both charity and community. Please understand that generosity without community isn’t bad, but it’s the best we can do.
The Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204) ranked what he called “Eight Levels of Charity.” He fully believed that all charity is good, but some are better than others. He said the lowest (8th) level is giving unwillingly (e.g. feeling pressured to give). Clearly that is not happening in this reading. The 6th level is where we give after being asked: I think much happens here (at least in my mailbox). But hightest, 1st level, is giving “him a gift or a loan, entering into a partnership with him, or finding employment for him, in order to strengthen his hand until ne need no longer be dependent on others.”
And if we do this our reward will be great. God speaks of our integrity; I see the word “integrity” as a great unsung word in our language. We live with integrity when we live our best selves as disciples. When we share our bread with the hungry we reach the apex of what Jesus calls us to be. Because this sharing not only fills the stomach of another, it also fills the heart.
And Jesus continues this in this part of the Sermon on the Mount. Last week we were tasked to be meek, and peacemakers, and those who thirst for justice. This week we are told that we are given what we need to do this.
Since Matthew’s day we’ve made the phrase “salt of the earth” a sign of distinction. That’s fine but I don’t think we’ve fully explored what this means. Jesus warned that if salt loses its favor should be thrown away because it had become tasteless. OK, show of hands: how long has the salt canister been in your pantry? Is there an expiration date on it? Or do you believe that the salt in your pantry will keep its flavor forever?
In truth salt never loses its taste: salt only goes bad when impurities invade it. And I have to admit this troubles me because this can easily be misinterpreted into thinking that we are done (or impure) after our first sin/fall/impurity. We’re not. Unlike salt we can be made pure again.
And while I love the phrase “you are the salt of the earth” I like the phrase “you are the light of the world” better. There is something about salt that grounds us, that calls us to one of earth’s most basic compounds, but light calls us to grow. If we are the light of the world, we are the energy that causes growth in the plants and trees around us. We are the energy that provides the food we all depend on. I know I’m hearkening back to high school biology, but we depend on a process called photosynthesis to create both the food we eat and the oxygen we breathe. Calling us the light of the world tells us that we are involved in our own survival.
And yes, it connects back to salt. We find salt in many things, not the least in preserving the food we eat. In the centuries before refrigeration we depended on salt to preserve our food. Even today, with good food preservation, we use salt. In addition to food preservation, salt also brings out flavor to our food. Nobody eats salt alone; salt is added to recipes to bring out the flavor. Many of us remember the iconic movie It’s a Wonderful Life where Mary Bailey welcomes a family to their new home and offers “salt that life may always have flavor.”
I’ve written about this before, but I believe the core of our role as disciples tasks to help build the kingdom God promises us. In March of 1988 the National Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote a draft document on the role of women in the Catholic Church. It was titled: “Partners in the Mystery of Redemption.” Unfortunately it was eventually shot down by the Vatican (and Pope John Paul II) but I’ve always loved the title. It applies not only to women, but to all of us who seek redemption.
I believe we are all partners in each other’s redemption and I look to these readings to make my case. If we allow our light to shine we will attract others to the discipleship, even when we’re not trying to do this. I’ve spent virtually all of my adult life as a public person of faith and I’ve encountered countless people. Some of them have been public places of worship, but some of them have not. My best memories have occurred when I’ve been introduced to people who were met me and were surprised to hear that I was a priest or chaplain.
Several people have told me that, without my knowing, they have been attracted to a life of faith because they wanted what they perceived I had. Without even knowing, I was salt and light. I think all of us in ministry can hearken back to these encounters.
I don’t say this to brag. Far from it. I say this because we need to recognize that our own discipleship brings salt and light, even when we are not aware. But I also say this to warn about a false discipleship that believes we are not called to be salt and light, and we are called only to be saved.
In my ministry I’ve also encountered people who have told me that discipleship is a personal quest. They tell me that salvation is exclusively about a “personal relationship with Christ” and we are all given the same opportunity. A person accepts Christ and is saved, or doesn’t accept Christ and is doomed. We’re all on our own.
But these readings mean nothing if they don’t mean that we are all in this together. If our relationship with Christ has no relationship with each other then there is no reason to share our bread with hungry. There is no reason to be salt of the earth or light of the world. It is, in the final word, a selfish understanding of salvation.
These readings empower us to be salt of the earth and light to the world. Let us use this power to share, and to be salt and light.