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Reflections for the V Sunday

Fr. Antony Kadavil reflects and comments on the readings at Mass for the fifth Sunday in ordinary time. He says that the common theme of today’s three readings is our two-fold mission to the world, to be salt and to be the light of a city built on a hilltop.

Is 58:7-10; I Cor 2:1-5; Mt 5: 13-16

 

Homily starter anecdoteSalt and light: The story of EWTN is the story of a brave woman who had the courage of her conviction that she should be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  Mother Angelica (who died in 2016), started broadcasting Catholic TV for just a few hours a day in 1981 from the garage of her Poor Clare Monastery in the US.  The project grew and grew, and now, after thirty-nine years, the Eternal Word Television Network is available twenty-four hours a day all over the world by cable and satellite.  Mother Angelica is an example of a true Christian living out her Faith as salt to preserve Christian values and to provide the modern world with a purifying mass medium. She kept putting her lamp on the lampstand so that Christ’s Light would shine for everyone in the modern global village. With the death of Mother Angelica on Easter Sunday, the Church has lost the most charismatic American Catholic media personality of her time, as well as someone who proved beyond any doubt that a determined and savvy woman can, after all, wield real power. For much of the 1980s and 1990s, she was simply the most riveting Catholic figure on the airwaves. She was a simple nun, with a profound Faith, and one courageously dependent upon God’s grace to supply what was needed. Her life and deeds were miraculous. Mother Angelica regularly attributed the success of EWTN to God's providence, but the history of the operation reveals savvy business decisions that helped "this miracle of God" to become the multi-million-dollar global media conglomerate it is today. That those decisions were made by a woman without much previous power in the Church is notable. (http://frtonyshomilies.com/)

Scripture lessons summarized: In our first reading, the Lord God through His prophet Isaiah gives us examples of how we are to allow the light of God to shine through us.  “Share your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.   Then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday” (58:7, 10).  The refrain for today’s Responsorial Psalm (Ps.112), reminds us, “The just man is a light in the darkness to the upright.” St. Paul, in the second reading, tells us that our proclamation of Faith will carry the Spirit and His power when we rely on the power and wisdom of God.  Using two simple metaphors of salt and the light of a city on a mountain in today’s Gospel, Jesus outlines the role of Christians in this world. As a symbol of purity, salt was the common ingredient in sacrifices offered to God by Jews and pagans. In the ancient world, salt was the commonest of all preservatives, used to prevent the putrefaction of meat, fish and fruits in pickles. Salt lends flavor to food items and was used to season and preserve food. A light is something which is meant to be seen.  A lamp or light is guide to make clear the way.  A light serves also as a warning (e.g., red traffic lights which tell us to halt when there is danger ahead. Finally, light, particularly the sun’s, gives warmth and heat. (Check exegesis for details)

The first reading explained (Is 58:7-10): The exiles who returned from Babylon had hoped for a quick restoration of their beloved capital Jerusalem, but completion of that project was frustratingly slow. The people wondered why their suffering was so prolonged, and the prophet Isaiah told them that the main problem was their unwillingness to share God’s blessings with others.  Hence, the prophet gives examples of how they were to allow the light of God to shine through them:  “Share your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.   Then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday” (58:7, 10).  The Prophet Isaiah speaks in terms of justice and compassionate care for the weak, needy and vulnerable because it is through them that the very goodness of God is revealed, and the disciple’s light will shine like the dawn. Alleviating the suffering of the oppressed and tending to the needs of others are the activities which produce light. It is by avoiding malice and by satisfying the afflicted, that we enable others to see and experience the light of the Lord’s favor. Today’s Gospel also reminds us of our duty to become salt and light and tells us that the best means to do so is by sharing our blessings sacrificially with others. The Responsorial Psalm corroborates this, saying “The just person is a light in darkness to the upright.” The psalmist’s assertion, “The Lord is my light,” is echoed in Jesus’ words “I am the Light of the world; the man who follows me will have the Light of Life.”

The second reading explained (I Cor 2:1-5): St. Paul learned his lesson from Athens that his human eloquence did not help his missionary work. Hence, in Corinth Paul says that he chose not to rely on human eloquence, "so that your Faith might rest, not on human wisdom, but on the power of God." So, Paul started preaching only on Christ crucified in Corinth and instructed the intellectuals in Corinth to learn the lesson of self-sacrifice from the crucified Christ. When Paul persisted in preaching Jesus as the suffering Savior, the unexpected happened. Pagans, as well as Jews and God-fearers believed the message and found their lives transformed by a new, liberating power, which broke the stranglehold of selfishness and vice and purified them from within. St. Paul’s experience teaches us that when we start doing good to others, even if it costs us suffering and death, it will demonstrate God’s Spirit and power, and we will become the salt of the earth and the light of the world that Jesus challenges us to become in today’s Gospel.

Gospel exegesis: The salt of the earth: In the ancient world salt was highly valued.  The Greeks called salt divine, and the Romans said, "There is nothing more useful than sun and salt."  The English word “salary” literally means “salt money.”  In the time of Jesus, salt was connected in people's minds with three special qualities. (i) Salt was connected with purity because it was white and it came from the purest of all things, the sun and the sea.  Salt was the most primitive of all offerings to the gods.  Jewish sacrifices were offered with salt.  The Orientals made their oaths with salt to ratify them.  They believed that it was the salt that kept the seas pure.  As the “salt of the earth,” the Christian must be an example of purity, exercising absolute purity in speech, in conduct, and even in thought.  God calls His children to preserve and purify.  The Church is to preserve modesty (1 Tm 2:9), morality (Eph 5:3-12), honesty and integrity (Jn 8:44-47).

(ii) Salt was the commonest of all preservatives in the ancient world when people did not have fridges and freezers.  It was used to prevent the putrefaction of meat, fish, fruits and pickles.  As the salt of the earth, the Christian must have a certain antiseptic influence on life and society, defeating corruption and making it easier for others to be good.  Christians are to be a preserving influence to retard moral and spiritual spoilage in the world.  “As the salt of the earth, you are called to preserve the Faith which you have received and to pass it on intact to others.  Your generation is being challenged in a special way to keep safe the deposit of Faith.” (Youth Day- 2002 Message by Pope St. John Paul II).

(iii) Salt lends flavor to food items. Job declares, “food without salt is a sadly insipid and even a sickening thing” (Job 6:6-7).  One of the main functions of salt is to season food, to give it taste and flavor.  This image reminds us that, through Baptism, our whole being has been profoundly changed, because it has been "seasoned" with the new Life which comes from Christ (cf. Rom 6:4).  ‘The salt which keeps our Christian identity intact even in a very secularized world is the grace of Baptism” (Youth Day- 2002 Message by Pope St. John Paul II). Christianity lends flavor to life, although people think the opposite about us.  In a worried and depressed world, the Christian should be the one man who remains full of the joy of life, conveying it to others.  It is our duty to make the world palatable (bearable), not just to others but also to God so that He can, so to speak, continue to bear with it, in spite of its "distasteful" wickedness.  To be the salt of society also means that we are deeply concerned with its well-being.  We have to preserve the cultural values and moral principles Jesus has given us, and in this way to make a contribution to the development of cultural and social life.  Thus, we will be adding flavor to the common life.  As salt seasoned and preserved food, and as it kept a fire burning uniformly in an oven for a longer time, the disciples were to improve the tone of society ("season" it), preserve the Faith, and extend the fire of the Spirit through their evangelization efforts.

Are we insipid salt?  Jesus went on to say that, if salt became insipid, it was fit only to be thrown out and trodden on by men.  Usually salt does not lose its flavor and its saltiness.  But when mixed with impurities, salt can lose its ability to enhance flavor.  We, too, might lose our ability to be a "flavoring agent" for the world if we allow "impurities" into our lives (1 Cor 15:33). Therefore, we need to keep ourselves free from sin (Eph 5:3-7). Blocks of cow dung, mixed with salt and other animal manure and dried in the sun, served as fuel for outdoor ovens in the time of Jesus. When the fuel paddies were lit in an oven, the mixed-in salt would help the paddies burn longer, with a more even heat.  When the family spent the salt-dung block, they would throw it out onto the road to harden a muddy surface.  As the salt of the earth, the Christians keep the fire of Faith alive even under stress. If Christian "salt" loses its "flavor," its “uselessness” invites disaster. If a Christian is not fulfilling his purpose as a Christian, if he or she does not bring to life the purity, the antiseptic power, and the flavor of salt, then he or she invites disaster.  His, or hers, is the fate of the repentant and returned apostate Jew in the Jewish community and the repentant apostate in the early Church. As penance for this sin, each had to lie across the door of the synagogue or Church and invite people to trample upon him/her as they entered. Today, there is a new, non-irritating, brand of Christianity around. It is without offense and without effect. Ah, but dear friends, Jesus didn’t call us to be the “sugar of the world.” He called us to be the “salt of the earth.”

The light of the world: The metaphor of light is often used in the Bible.  The Jews spoke of Jerusalem as “a light to the Gentiles.”  But Jerusalem does not produce its own light.  It is God who lights the lamp of Israel.  Moreover, Jerusalem cannot hide its light. At the start of his ministry, St. Matthew portrays Jesus as the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy, namely, that he is 'the great light' that will disperse the shadow of death and the darkness of sin, that have enveloped the world. When Jesus commanded his followers to be the light of the world, he demanded nothing less than that they should be like him, the One who is be the Light of the world.  "As long as I am in the world, I am the Light of the world" (Jn 9:5).  Christ is the "true" or "original" Light (Jn 8:12).  Citizens of the kingdom are simply "luminaries" reflecting the One True Light, just as the moon reflects the light of the sun (2 Cor 4:6).  The radiance which shines from the Christian comes from the presence of Christ within the Christian's heart as the radiance of a ‘radiant bride’ comes from the love in her heart.  Christians are to be torchbearers in a dark world.  We should not try to hide the light which God has lit in our lives.  Rather, we should let it shine so that others may see our good deeds and praise God.  St. Paul exhorts the Christians in Philippi “to be blameless and innocent in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine like lights in the world” (Phil 2: 15).

The role of Christians as Christ’s light of the world. (i) A light is something which is meant to be seen.  (The lamp in Palestine was like a sauce-boat full of oil with a wick floating in it.  When people went out, for safety's sake they took the lamp from its stand and put it under an earthen bushel measure, so that it might burn without risk until they came back).  Christians must be visible like a "city" on a hilltop and a lamp on a "lamp stand."  Jesus therefore expects His followers to be seen by the world (Jn 13:35; 17:21). In addition, they must radiate and give light.  "Let your light shine before men" (Mt 5:16).  By this metaphor Jesus means that our Christianity should be visible in the ordinary activities of the world, for example, in the way we treat a shop assistant across the counter, in the way we order a meal in a restaurant, in the way we treat our employees or serve our employer, in the way we play a game or drive or park a motor car, in the daily language we use, in the daily literature we read.

(ii) A lamp or light is a guide to make clear the way.  So then, a Christian must make the way clear to others.  That is to say, a Christian must of necessity be an example.  “The light which Jesus speaks of in the Gospel is the light of Faith, God’s free gift, which enlightens the heart and clarifies the mind.  It is the God who said, ‘Let Light shine out of darkness,’ Who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of Christ (Cor 4:6).  Our personal encounter with Christ bathes life in new Light, sets us on the right path, and sends us out to be his witnesses.” (Youth Day message by Pope St. John Paul II).  It is the Christian's duty to take a stand which the weaker brother will support, to give the lead which those with less courage will follow.  The world needs its guiding lights.  There are people waiting and longing for a leader to take a stand and to do the thing which they do not dare by themselves.

iii) A light can often be a warning light.  A light is often the warning which tells us to halt when there is danger ahead.  It is sometimes the Christian's duty to bring to his fellowmen a necessary warning.  If our warnings are given, not in anger, not in irritation, not in criticism, not in condemnation, but in love, they may be effective.  

iv) Light exposes everything hidden by darkness.  (Note Jn 3:19; 1 Cor 4:5; Eph 5:8–11).  When our teens, baptized and confirmed, get pregnant and do drugs at the same rate as the general teenage population; when our marriages end in divorce at the same rate as the rest of society; when we cheat in business, or lie, steal, and cheat on our spouses at the same statistical level as those who say they are not Christians -- something is wrong.  Let us pause for a moment and ask ourselves whether we are carrying the Light which can be seen, the Light which warns, the Light which guides.  These are the Lights which God shines through our Christian living.

Life messages: 1) We need to act as salt and light by sharing in Christ's ministry as priest, prophet, and king.  As priest, Christ offered a sacrifice of love to the Father.  What sacrifices of love do we offer to the Father? We can offer our married, single, or family life, work, outreach to others, and even relaxation along with our prayers and suffering to God.  We can offer them at any time, but the best time is at Mass when we offer ourselves with Christ to the Father.  As prophet, Christ proclaimed the Good News of salvation.  He also calls us to evangelize others (both fellow-Catholics and non-Catholics), by word and example, at home and at work.  We bear witness most effectively when others see the difference Christ has made in our lives, shining through us as the Light which can be seen, the Light which warns, and the Light which guides.  Finally, as King, Christ became servant to all through His Self-giving.  He also calls us to give of ourselves so the workplace and the home may become more humane. He calls us to serve in our parishes so they can grow and become more alive.  He calls us to integrate our Christian Faith into our daily lives so that our service may be His service to others. So, we make a difference as Christians when we offer ourselves to God, when we proclaim the Good News in word and example, and when we serve others.  God calls us to worship, to witness, and to give.

2) We need to live our short lives as traces of salt and candles of light: It only takes a sprinkling of salt to transform a dull and tasteless piece of meat.  Just a little salt transforms everything.  Just a pinch of soul-salt will add flavor to the lives of hundreds, or even thousands.  Just as salt acts as a preservative and adds flavor to food, so the exemplary lives of Christians lend flavor to life by helping people to live correctly and by keeping society wholesome. Just a little light empties the world of darkness.  With a little Faith and love we can light up a big social area.  Does that encourage us?  It should. We may think we’re insignificant – and in a way we are – but with a little bit of Christ, we become a veritable lighthouse, illuminating the way for many.  This Christ-light removes the darkness caused by hatred, spite and jealousy. Our good deeds and actions reflect the image of Jesus, the light of the world. We can speak with kindness and respect, we can value ourselves, we can tell the truth and we can use our talents. We can listen and talk, we can engage in dialogue and we can come to know people of different ethnic backgrounds, people with different lifestyles and sexual preferences, people of other faiths and people of no faith – and this will bring the light of Christ to illumine and change the world.  Salt is a hidden but powerful influence.  Light is a visible and revealing influence.  Jesus tells us that we are not only to be the salt of the earth but also the light of the world.  We are called to make a tangible impact on the world around us.  Does our life make a difference?  It should.  Jesus said we are to be salt and light.  Does our life make a difference?  It can, if we surrender ourselves to Christ.  Does our life make a difference?  If we live for Him, it will! (Fr. Antony Kadavil).

06 February 2020, 13:12