5 Ordinary Time
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Homily by Father Alex McAllister SDS
The Gospels in these weeks of Ordinary Time lead us through the Sermon on the Mount. Last Sunday we looked at the Beatitudes and today we begin with the main body of the text.
Jesus gives us a couple of startling images: You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world. These words are clearly addressed to those who have decided to become his followers and as with the rest of the text of this most famous of all sermons Jesus is unfolding to the people just what being a follower of his is going to mean.
These two expressions, salt of the earth and light of the world, have become part of our language. They are metaphors that anyone speaking English anywhere in the world might use in the context of ordinary speech without knowing where they come from. Let us take the first of these images and unpack it. Being the salt of the earth means that the disciple of Christ brings flavour or zest or something tangy to the world.
Adding salt to food brings out the flavour, it stops what we eat from tasking bland and unappetising. By telling us that his disciples are salt for the earth Jesus is stating that they bring out the essential goodness in the world so that it is found to be appetising. This is a very interesting image and makes it clear that the role of the Christian is to make the world a better place; our task is to make it more interesting and appealing.
This is something important. We see more and more in a Western society that is increasingly distant from God that many people experience meaninglessness. The effects of this are seen in gun-massacres and in the increase in suicide and the superficial way so many people seem to be leading their lives.
We find ourselves living in a world which lacks meaning and direction and we realise that Christ is telling his disciples that they ought to be providing the world with this important element. It is their task to bring meaning and purpose to the world, to make life appealing and to demonstrate that a life with God life is infinitely more rewarding than one without him.
An interesting thing is that salt has also long been regarded as a substance that counteracts evil. We know that from the most ancient times salt was used to preserve food and we only have to think how salt is used to conserve hams and other meats to realise the importance of this attribute. It is only a short step from preserving food from decay to seeing that salt may have a role in fighting all sorts of evil.
In the Church salt is commonly put in water before it is blessed by the priest for the use of the people. We do this here at St Joseph’s with the Holy Water in the stoops by the doors of the Church.
We can take all of these aspects, the provision of flavour, the preservation from decay and the ability to drive out evil, and we see that they can all can be considered essential aspects of the role of the disciple. This makes salt a very relevant metaphor for a Christian living in the world.
You are the light of the world, says Jesus. This second very striking image gives us another glimpse into the duties of a disciple of Christ. We know very well how important light is and we can imagine how much more important it was in the age before artificial light. The presence of daylight is what determined whether human beings could go about their business or not. Without sunlight, we were condemned to stay in our homes using only very dim and smoky lamplight.
For a disciple of Christ to be compared to the light of the world puts them in an extraordinary position for it is light that enables us to perceive the world around us. Light is liberating; for it is only with light that we can see the world and all that is in it. We know too that it is light that causes growth and indeed in many cases it is light that heals.
It would be impossible for us to think of living in a world without light. So, it is a very apt metaphor for the disciple of Christ who plays a highly significant role in the world; it is through the insight that the disciple provides that man sees the world as it truly is.
Of course, it is Christ himself who is pre-eminently the Light of the World. It is he who brings the truth of God into the world and it is through his sacrifice on the Cross that mankind is healed from sin and division. We as his disciples play our own role in spreading his light, his insight, to the people around us.
We do this primarily by our use of words and example. It is good test for us to see if our words bring light to the people around us. Do our words build up or breakdown? Does our use of words enlighten others or does it spread more darkness? This is a good litmus test for us and for the authenticity of our role as Christ’s disciples.
This passage set before us today comes immediately after the Beatitudes and right at the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. From its location we have to see it as specially significant.
So these tasks of being salt and light for the world ought to be regarded as essential for the authentic following of Christ. It is interesting that Jesus approaches discipleship in this way by giving us metaphors rather than specific rules and regulations.
When we begin a new job our employer usually tells us to perform certain tasks. We are given a set of routines to follow. This is the same whether we are in a factory with certain levers to press or whether we work with the general public where we go through particular routines in order to fulfil specific demands of our customers.
This is not the case with a disciple of Christ, we are given the maximum amount of freedom and have to interpret our role each in our own way. Christ gives us a huge amount of latitude and invites us to carry out our role as his representatives with the maximum level of personal responsibility.
We are invited to utilise our own special gifts and talents as well as our own unique understanding and these are used to inform our role of being a disciple. In this way the Christian message is given many facets and has a whole variety of expressions coming from all the different disciples in the world.
Christ trusts us to remain true to his message but gives us perfect freedom to express the message each in our own unique way. This is why he gives us metaphors and not rules. We are to be like salt and light but each of us is completely free to bring flavour and insight to the world according to our own unique circumstances and viewpoint. This is a wonderful freedom that Christ gives to his disciples; the important thing, of course, is that we actually use it.