Father Donald Senior, CP

Feb. 5: Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Salt and light

Is 58:7-10; Ps 112:4-5, 6-7, 8-9; 1 Cor 2:1-15; Mt 5:13-16

Editors’ note: It is with great sadness that we mourn the Nov. 8, 2022, death of Passionist Father Donald Senior, whose Scripture column we were honored to publish over the past six years. As we look for a new Scripture columnist, we will continue reprinting Father Don’s past columns, with the permission of the Congregation of the Passion of Jesus Christ.

What would it have been like to hear Jesus preach? The Sermon on the Mount is not the transcript of a single speech or discourse but a collection of Jesus’ sayings that he spoke on a number of different occasions.

They are collected here in this famous section of Matthew’s Gospel from which our selection for this Sunday is taken. But, most scholars agree, in the vivid imagery of the Sermon on the Mount we can hear the authentic voice of Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus was not an abstract teacher. Much of his teaching was presented in parables, those unusual stories that portrayed ordinary human experiences in a more than ordinary way: the shepherd who leaves his flock to go after one stray; the woman who puts an enormous amount of yeast into a small amount of dough; the wily steward who changes his master’s accounts in order to feather his post-retirement nest; a mustard seed that grows into a tree that harbors the birds of the air — the list can go on.

Even when Jesus didn’t use stories, he still used vivid and unforgettable images: “Take the beam out of your own eye before you take the speck out of your neighbor’s”; “You are more precious than many sparrows”; “The harvest is great, the laborers few.” Jesus’ style of discourse tells us he was a close and sympathetic observer of human life — foibles and all.

That brings us to the images of today’s Gospel, in which Jesus urges his disciples to give witness to the world.

“You are the salt of the earth.” Salt in the ancient world was used not only to flavor food — as it is for most of us today — but was also a major preservative for meat and fish in a world without refrigeration. You really needed salt to survive.

“You are the light of the world.” For defense, most ancient cities were built on high elevations; it would be hard to hide such a village or town. It was there for everyone to see. And, Jesus goes on, in a world without electricity when nighttime really meant utter darkness, why would you light a lamp and burn its precious oil only to put it under a bushel basket? Of course not; you put it on a lampstand where it can give light to the whole house.

Just so, the disciples are to be “salt” and “light” in a world often without tang and in a world living in darkness. Jesus went on to explain the point of it all. You, my disciples, are to be salt and light so that others can see your “good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”

How might we be salt and light today in our world? The other readings of this Sunday liturgy offer some guidance on what “good deeds” entail. The first reading from the prophet Isaiah takes us back to Jesus’ powerful and pointed teaching about care for the poor and vulnerable that we heard last Sunday in the Beatitudes. “Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them … then your light shall break forth like the dawn.”

The psalm response for today suggests another purpose for our witness: “the just person is a light in darkness to the upright.” The good deeds we not only help those in need but can inspire others to do the same. “Passing on” our blessings is, in fact, a truly Christian point of view.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus will tell his disciples, “the gift you have received, give as a gift” (Mt 10:8). Every day the news brings us tales of woe: wanton violence and betrayals of public trust. Jesus’ teaching urges us by our example to bring a different message to the people around us, a message of encouragement and inspiration. Our motivation is not to put the focus on ourselves but to “glorify our heavenly Father” and in so doing we can also support each other in our quest for holiness.

This column was reprinted from the Jan. 29, 2017, issue.



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