5th Sunday of the Year – "You are the Salt of the Earth"

Sunday Reflection by Fr Paddy Hennessy

WORD OF GOD AND SALESIAN LIFE   by Juan Jose Bartolome

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A                  Lectio Divina on Mt 5,13-16 

Although he was still not well known – he had just begun his public ministry – and although his followers were only a small number of disciples who had not yet opted definitively for him, Jesus did not hesitate to let his disciples know their responsibility. Those who want to follow him must be light of the world and salt of the earth. This is the definition of a disciple that Jesus gave on the mount of the beatitudes. He did not delay in telling those who followed him what he wanted them to be.

For those of us today who wish to be counted among Jesus’ disciples, these words are a challenge that we have to face and a task that we have to accomplish. If we listen to them again, in public, as his first hearers did in the presence of the crowd, it might seem that his words are an illusory proposition…  and a serious admonition. We know what we ought to be and we have to acknowledge that we are not yet what Jesus wants us to be.

At that time: Jesus said to his disciples 13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men. 14“You are the light of the world.  A city set on a hill cannot be hid. 15 Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

I.  Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it.

Jesus began his first discourse by proclaiming a paradoxical happiness in the series of the beatitudes, He then immediately focused his attention exclusively on his disciples. We should not forget that he has just called them happy because they suffer persecution on account of their faith (Mt 5,11-12). It is to them, and to all who are happy because they are wronged or persecuted, that Jesus discloses what he wants them to be. There are things that Jesus reveals only to those who give their life for him and for his cause. For that reason it is not easy for us to understand who we are… because we are not ‘risking’ anything by being what we are.

The text is built around two solemn declarations, each beginning with the words “you are”. They introduce two images: salt and light. The formulation is symmetrical, although not equal, for the second image is more developed.

The image of salt (Mt 5,13a.14a), which is explained in negative terms, has a certain critical tone (Mt 5,13bc.14b). There is the possibility of the salt losing its taste. The disciples run the risk of losing the whole reason for their being, if they do not succeed in being salt for others.

The image of light (Mt 5,14-16) gets more attention than that of salt (Mt 5,13). It is presented in a concentric way: the light of the world (Mt 5,14) corresponds to the light of men  (Mt 5,16a). Two examples are added which are based on common observation. A city is built on a hilltop and a lamp is placed on a lamp-stand (Mt 5,14b.15). The examples emphasize visibility. Disciples must be seen and recognised if they are to bring light into the lives of others.

The final sentence (Mt 5,16b) spells out the practical consequences of the two images, and shows a certain tension between the image and the reality. The images refer to what the disciples are, and the final exhortation to how they are to become what they should be. The disciples must become what they are called to be for others, and if they do, the glory goes to God. The goal of the behaviour of the disciple is God and his glory.

II. Meditate:  apply what the text says to life

As soon as he began his discourse on the mountain and promised happiness to those who had least hope of obtaining it, Jesus directed his attention to the disciples who were following him, and listening to him in the presence of the crowd. He proclaimed them light of the world and salt of the earth. This is strange behaviour on the part of Jesus! The disciples, who had not been with him very long and were not yet accustomed to him or to his demands, must know from the start what expectations Jesus had of them. Moreover, Jesus did not want to delay a teaching that concerned only his disciples, simply because they were listening to him in front of the crowd at the foot of the mountain. He wanted everybody to hear what he was asking of some. In following Jesus there is no place for “anonymous Christians”.

When we remember how Jesus loves his disciples and what he expects of them, it will be easier for us to decide to become a disciple. We know only that Jesus wants us as we are and that we must become what he wants us to be. The disciple feels loved by his master when he does the impossible in order to be what Jesus wants him to be. To be his disciple it is not enough, then, as we might easily think, to want to be one. Jesus did not ask his followers what they wanted to be, nor how they thought they should follow him. He insisted that they become what he wanted them to be and he gave them a concrete way to follow him. Perhaps this is the reason why, after many years of being his disciples – maybe even after the whole of our lives – we have not yet reached the point where we feel ourselves authentically loved by him!

If we do not accept his conditions, we cannot expect him to consider us his disciples. We don’t ask ourselves what he wants of us but we think he wants us as disciples. Perhaps because we don’t want to seem uninterested in what he thinks of us, we fail to believe that he is interested in us. By insisting on being good disciples of Jesus we think we are good because of what we are ready to give him, but we are depriving ourselves of having him as master and companion which is what he really wants of us. On the mount of beatitudes Jesus said very clearly who he considers true disciples. They are those who are salt of the earth and light of the world.

Maybe we have not noticed, but Jesus thought of his disciples as missionaries of the world. He wanted them to be salt and light, to bring taste and to enlighten. He did not want them for himself, to stay with him, or to withdraw from the people. That is why he made clear to them, in front of everybody, what they should be. Those who follow Christ do so, not in order to merit greater attention from him, nor better treatment, but so that the world might see them and come to serve the Lord better. Their works are to shine before men, like a lamp on a lamp-stand or a city on a hilltop. They must live in the midst of others, preserve the distinct flavour of Christ, and be visible for all to see.

Being a disciple of Jesus has never been just a hobby, an occasional activity or a Sunday pastime. It is something that becomes part of our nature, in the same way that it is the nature of light to shine and of salt to add flavour.  And just as it is natural for light to enlighten and salt to preserve and add flavour, Jesus demands commitment from his disciples, without asking them beforehand if they are ready for it.  If we are disciples, we must be salt and light. And we know very well that salt is no use if it is simply stored – it has to be used. Only when it is scattered on food has it power to preserve or to add flavour.  The Christian who is salt of the earth cannot live his life of faith in anonymity. He should be interested in what is happening according to God’s plan. And, like salt, he will give a Christian flavour to the world that he comes in contact with, if he enters into that world and becomes immersed in it, while maintaining his identity and the memory of Jesus. Today many of our contemporaries, maybe even some of our friends, have not made the decision to trust in God, because they have not seen us trusting in him, even though we are active believers. If it is difficult for us, why should it prove any easier for them?

Without light, human life would be unthinkable. In the dull grey world we live in, the responsibility of the Christian is even greater. If darkness remains on the horizon, and if doubt darkens the human heart, it is because there are no disciples who let their faith shine every day as light for the lives of others and as a guide for those who do not yet believe.  Moreover, and this should encourage us, no matter how great the darkness is, a small light is enough to illumine it. We don’t need to wait for other better lights to come. If we are already disciples, let us begin to give the best thing we have – our faith – no matter how small it may be, and the witness of our fidelity, however weak or faltering it may be.

Nowadays believers are satisfied with being good, and good example costs us! We are not interested in making our world better. But it is God’s world and this is our task! We have reduced our effort of fidelity to the ambit of our own conscience, and our field of action to our own lives. We feel we are sinners if we do certain things, but we fail to recognise that we cease to be authentic disciples of Christ, not so much by the wrong we do as by the good we neglect to do.

If Christ is not the light of our lives and we do not see everything in his light, if our life does not preserve the flavour of Christ, what use are we to the world? If our daily life does not bring light and hope to those with whom we live, if our actions do not have something of the flavour of Christ, we cannot complain if the world is an ugly place. We ought rather to accuse ourselves of not being as good as we should be. It is not by condemning others that we become good, but by committing ourselves to live as light and salt for the world. If we really want Jesus to count us among his disciples, let us make sure that the world finds light and salt in us. It is a challenge! It is also our opportunity, if we want to be recognised by Christ as his disciples.

To the demand that we be salt and light of the world Jesus adds an objective: the disciple must be light and salt of the world, but it is only to God that he must give glory. What we are for others has as its purpose that they may know God. Our being the flavour of Christ and the light of the world must give praise and honour to God the Father. Our being of help to others must be only for the love of God the Father. If this seems to us a small thing, it is because we do not take into consideration our duty to give honour to God.