Brief synopsis of the readings: Near the end of the prophet Isaiah read that God demands that we share our “bread with the hungry and shelter the homeless poor.” This will cause our light to shine like the dawn and heal our wounds. Matthew’s Gospel continues this theme with the conclusion of his Sermon on the Mount. Jesus instructed his followers that they are the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world.” As light we are called to let our light to shine to everyone so that they will “give praise to your Father in heaven.”
I’ve never been able to find the source of this, but I once read that a wise person brings more light than heat to a conversation. I think we all agree that light is a good thing: people who have experienced a near death experience describe a brilliant light that does not hurt their eyes.
Salt, on the other hand, is a little more difficult to love. Today we understand the need to restrict salt as too much of it leads to hypertension. But salt does two things well: it preserves food and brings out its flavor. At the time of Jesus salt was seen as something valuable.
So what do we need to do to become light and salt? That’s easy: Isaiah tells us clearly that our light will shine like the dawn when we reach out to the hungry, homeless, and naked.
Slam dunk, right? I wish.
On its face, sharing food is hardly unique to humans. Most animals feed their young and several mammals hunt in packs and share what they kill (think of lions and wolves) with the rest of the pack. But they cooperate in dividing resources only with their pack. Other lions, other wolves, are competition.
As humans we are used to sharing with our own family and that’s a good thing, but I believe that Isaiah and Jesus call us to more. I believe that we are called to see everyone as part of our pack. When I think of this I think of the play and movie Fiddler on the Roof. In one scene a beggar approaches a man and asks for help. The man gives him one kopek. The beggar complains that last week he was given two kopeks and the man answers: “I had a bad week.” The beggar responds with “So if you had a bad week why should I suffer?”
But seriously we hear voices that tell us to ignore these readings. There are voices who tell us that wealth is a gift from God and poverty is punishment. And even more insidiously we’re told that giving to the poor goes against God’s will.
Don’t believe me? Read Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol. At the beginning of the book Ebeneezer Scrooge is asked to give to the poor and he responds that the poor already have what they need in poor houses and they have no right to his surplus.
Not long after this book was written, peasants in Ireland began to starve. They were forced by their landlords to plant potatoes even though potatoes were not indigenous to Ireland. From 1845 to 1849 a fungus destroyed the potatoes and the farmers had no way to make a living. And even though they were subjects of Great Britain, they found no help there. Large numbers of the British population saw the Irish as not fully human somehow deserved to starve. Today we see this with horror, something that can’t happen today.
Well…in 1970 a song came out titled Welfare Cadillac. In the song a man sings that he owns a nice car because other people pay taxes that provide him and his family with a variety of subsidies (welfare, child support, free school lunches,etc.). He speaks scornfully of people who provide his wife and 10 children by paying their taxes. That same year Johnny Cash came to the White House and President Nixon asked him to play that song (he didn’t).
And finally here in the United States the current administration is tightening up immigration requirements. One tactic is to tell applicants that if they have used public funds (e.g. food assistance) this will count against them. It is their belief that once somebody begins to use assistance they will stop doing anything else and rely on this assistance forever.
I say this not to step into controversy but illustrate a core belief as Christians: That we are all part of the same pack. That if we can divide ourselves into givers (who give from their surplus) and recipient (who depend on other for their need) we need to understand that these groups are often fluid. People lose wealth (blameless or not) while others use others’ generosity to raise themselves up.
But more than that we need to recognize that we need each other. Part of my salary goes to feed hungry children and I’m a regular donor at my local blood bank. I’ll never see the people I help but I pray for them often. But sometimes I meet someone who talks about having received public assistance at an earlier, darker time in their life. And because I work with the elderly some of them tell me about programs during the Great Depression that made all the difference in their lives. I don’t know who gets my blood but I see testimonials from people whose lives were saved by blood donors.
Like Jesus I don’t believe that hungry people look for ways to game the system and stay dependent on the generosity of others. And I also believe that when we provide help it makes us better not only in the eyes of God but also in the eyes of others.
At the time of Jesus most people could only afford the sun as a source of light. Candles and lamps were expensive. And salt was also expensive and valuable. When we become light and salt we show our value as people. Finally, I think much of Jesus’ ministry was focused on society of generosity and gratitude instead of one of fear and alienation.