We didn’t hear the Gospel for the Fourth Sunday Ordinary Time because instead we celebrated the Feast of the Presentation on that day. Ordinarily it would have been an account of the Beatitudes with which Jesus opened the Sermon on the Mount and in which we find the very heart of the Gospel message.
The Gospel text for this Sunday follows directly on from the Beatitudes and presents us with two images of the ideal disciple of Christ namely the Salt of the Earth and the Light of the World. Each of these images is presented with two aspects one positive and one negative.
Salt enhances the taste of food. A good example is when you add a bit of salt to a tomato it really brings out the taste of the tomato so much so that you never want to eat tomato again without a pinch of salt. But then Jesus contrasts this with the suggestion that if salt becomes tasteless then it is of no use to anyone. All it will do then is put your blood pressure up without adding taste to anything.
In a similar way he talks about the lamp and its proper place on the lampstand where it gives light to the whole house and contrasts this with putting the lamp under a tub where it will give no light to anyone.
The conclusion he draws from these two strong images is that the disciple must be authentic and act like a disciple should so that men can see their good works and so be drawn to Jesus. This is what we call witnessing; doing good works so that our commitment to Christ and his Gospel are evident to everyone.
We don’t do charitable works because they will bring us the admiration of others and allow us to show off; no, we do good works because we know this is what Christ wants us to do. We do good works in order to give glory to him. We care for our fellow man out of obedience to Christ.
From this we see that one of the fundamental characteristics of a Christian is to be outward looking, being concerned about the welfare of others and not being selfish or inward looking. We want to live our lives for other people and not be concerned with getting our own way or thinking always about our own personal advantage.
It might be worth exploring that image of salt for a bit. If we were to take things literally, actually being salt is absolutely hopeless. There is nothing so useless, so unmanageable, or so inedible as salt by itself. You can't do anything with just salt. Even if you were starving to death you could not eat salt to stay alive. Salt by itself is absolutely useless. It makes fields infertile, it kills life, it preserves death, it is very heavy. It is, on its own, totally useless.
Salt only becomes useful when it is mixed with other things. Jesus indicates this in today's gospel reading. You are the salt of the earth. We are not salt; we are the salt of the earth. We should be mixed up with the earth. We should be mixed in with the world around us.
If as a Christian you say I am the salt of the earth, then be prepared because what you are saying is that you should be thrown in the cooking pot. Of course, if you like you can stand in front of the cooking pot looking pretty. But no, you must be thrown in, mixed up with the world and thoroughly stewed. Of course, being salt it will become so absorbed into the stew that it will entirely disappear, but yet it's presence will make the stew tasty and palatable.
Christians who want to see themselves as the salt of the earth don't have to rush out and join all kinds of organisations and get themselves elected on to councils and committees. Though they may do some of these things in time.
They don't have to set up prayer groups all over the town, though they do have to pray. They don't even have to run around doing social work and bestowing care upon the poor, important and laudable through this is. What they have to do is bring a bit of flavour to the street in which they live and the places in which they work and play.
If salt is not mixed with anything else it is too bitter, too strong, too biting, too painful to the skin. Salt is therefore unbearable on its own. We can all think of Christians who are a bit like that. They are not mixed in, they don't have friends, they are not on good terms with their non-Christian neighbours. They are just as useless to God's plan for the salvation of the world as a big bag of salt and no stew.
If we are to look again at that image Jesus gives us about being the light of the world we realise that all these things we have said about salt can also be said about light. Light on its own is blinding. That's what you do if you want to torture prisoners, you shine lights in their eyes. Because light on its own hurts.
Light only becomes useful when it makes us able to see things other than itself. It is only useful when it illuminates dark corners. Jesus says that we must be the light of the world. Again, the operative words are ‘of the world’. We need to go about shedding light, making things visible, brightening things up.
As we can see there are two kinds of Christians: those who are wrapped up in themselves and too busy being self-righteous. They blind you with their Christianity, they rub salt into your wounds. They push Christ down your throat. Their Christianity is unpalatable, because it is to meet their own deep-seated needs and feelings of inadequacy.
Thank God however, that there are many more Christians who have got into the pot and who bring flavour and bite to the stew. They blend in, but they add taste and they bring light. They carry Christ's Gospel to all those they meet. They do so in quiet and subtle ways, they give example through their lives. They have understood the power behind gentleness and patience. They know how to live their lives in a fulfilling way. They know how to love and care.
These Christians are indeed the salt of the earth and the light of the world. And Christ is constantly using them to further his work of salvation in the world. Let us resolve to be like those true disciples who live for others and who bring Christ to the world.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket