|Our Scripture passage for this Sunday comes from the Gospel of Matthew 5:13–16. In this reading, Jesus describes our identity and purpose as disciples. We are to be “Salt of the Earth” and “Light of the World”. In giving us this identity and mission, Jesus is telling us that we are now to carry out the God-given role originally entrusted to the people of Israel through the Prophet Isaiah (Is 2:2–5, 42:6, 49:6). Let’s look at each of these images for further insight to guide us we follow the Lord.|
Salt had a variety of uses in the Old Testament and in the ancient world. Because of many possible uses of salt, it is not clear if Jesus intended one particular meaning for disciples or if our Lord wanted to offer a variety of possible meanings depending upon the unique challenges each of us faces. We are probably most familiar with salt because of its use in cooking where it gives flavor to food. Today we refer to salted greens as a “salad”, which comes from the Latin word for salt, sale. Salt was also used to preserve food from corruption. Once preserved, meats and other products could then be traded and exchanged for other goods. Such ability to preserve agricultural produce was essential in the creation of economies for those societies. Salt was a rare resource in the ancient world and was so valuable that it was considered as important as a person’s daily wage. For this reason the English word “salary” is derived from the Latin word for salt as well. Roads were named after salt (Via Salaria), as were cities (Salzburg). Salt was also used to purify and for the offering of sacrifices in the Temple of Jerusalem. In the late first century, salt was even used in various parts of the world to build fires in earthen ovens (cf. Letter of Ignatius to the Magnesians). In these ovens, chunks of salt were mixed with dung, which allowed the fire to start more quickly, burn more intensely, and last longer. Basically, salt served as a catalyst, which enhanced the fire but was not changed by the fire. With each application for the image of salt, there is a corresponding application for the identity and mission of disciples:
· We are to be people who flavor all aspects of our world, relationships and situations we face with the values of the Gospel.
· We are to be people who pray and actively work to guard against temptation so as to preserve ourselves and others from the corruption of sin and human vices.
· We are to be people who constantly purify our world by removing what is contrary to the Gospel or distorted in our priorities.
· We are to be people who unite our difficulties and persecutions of faith with the sacrifice of Jesus so as to be offered with Him to the Father.
· Lastly, we are to be people who become catalysts of conversion in the world so as to allow the fire of faith to catch more quickly in people’s lives, to burn more intensely in our hearts and theirs, and to endure. Sometimes this means that we are willing to put ourselves in the very messy situations of other people’s lives (dung) so as to accompany them with compassion and love while facilitating their faith experience.
Which of these images of “salt” has special meaning for you and why?
Which image do you find to be the most challenging?
Salt does not lose its taste, but it can become adulterated with impurities, which weaken its effectiveness. What are the “impurities” that cause Christians to become weak in their mission to be “salt”?
While it is easy to apply the images of salt to our own personal lives of faith and spirituality, Jesus tells us that we are salt not for ourselves, or just for those around us, but for the earth, which means everyone around the world. Who needs you to be salt for them?
The image of light is also richly established in the Scriptures. Israel was called to be a “Light to the Nations” by the Prophet Isaiah. Paul spoke of his ministry as being a “light for those in darkness” (Rom 2:19). Luke’s Gospel tells us that Simeon prophesied that Jesus would be a “light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Lk 2:32). All of these texts are important and deepen our understanding of what it means to be light in our own world. Light exists not for itself but so that others can see. As such, light has a purpose that benefits others and not just the one who provides it. That is certainly true for the people of Israel who were to be bearers of God’s revelation so that others could come to know God through them. It is also true of Jesus who lived His life for others. It was true of Paul who carried out extensive missionary journeys so that others could be saved through the message of faith. Indeed, being light isn’t meant to draw attention to ourselves but to help people see more clearly who God is and thus be drawn to the Lord. That is the ministry entrusted to us as disciples.
Matthew goes on to say that the good works of Christians are the way in which we bring light. Good works have the purpose of allowing others to see God’s goodness and to praise God for His mercy. Good works are not for the benefit of the disciple who accomplishes them but to inspire others to recognize and respond to the presence and work of God in the world. Others will inevitably see good works, just as it is unavoidable that a city set on a hill would be ignored. Still, disciples do not take credit for the good they are privileged to do. Rather, disciples readily acknowledge that any good they have accomplished is nothing more than their cooperation with the grace of God who initiates all good works and brings them to completion.
Lastly, the image of light can also mean the ability to see clearly the world around us. The saints sometimes spoke about the clarity with which they could see the circumstances of their lives when the divine light illumined their hearts and minds. Sometimes it’s more convenient to remain in darkness than to live in the light! When we see clearly our lives from God’s perspective, then we realize the conversion and repentance that are necessary for growth in holiness. This light is a gracious gift that allows us to dismiss the lies that all too often cloud our thoughts and decisions when we are in darkness. Coming into the light in this way is much like stepping into a sunny day from a dark room and has the same overwhelming effect on our souls. Jesus tells us in this passage that we are to bring the light of the Gospel so as to illumine the misunderstood and darkened world of others’ lives. In order to accomplish the identity and mission of being light, disciples must always remember that we are never the source of divine light. Jesus alone revealed Himself as the Light of the World (Jn 8:12). The Book of Revelation further reveals that in the Heavenly Jerusalem there will be no sun or moon, for the Lamb of God will be its light (Rev 21:23). Disciples are not called to be the origins of our Lord’s light; we are called to be the windows through which that light shines in the world.
When have good works inspired and deepened your faith by opening your eyes to recognize the presence and work of God in our world?
When has someone cast light on your life in such a way that you saw more clearly and chose to respond in a faithful manner?
Who do you know who is in darkness now, and what can you do to be “light” for them? When have others been inspired to seek God because of a good work you did? Which aspect of light do you find most challenging?
These two images of light and salt are meant to correct any misunderstanding of religion that considers faith to be only a personal or private experience. Because of our faith, we are called to be people who affect the world around us. Our “saltiness” and our “light” do not originate from within us; these qualities originate from God as gifts given to us. As Christians, we are simply called to live out those gifts so others can experience them. When we keep our faith private, we fail to affect the world around us and in doing so we fail in our identity and mission.
What situations are going on in your life or the lives of your family and friends that need your Christian influence?
How can you be a better witness in order to inspire others?
What leads people to sometimes think that faith is a merely private experience?
How can a faith community provide opportunities for people to be “light” and “salt” for others?
Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Magnesians,
This experience known in the Christian spiritual tradition as “obfuscation” is the result of an excess of light that brings the soul to a more clear understanding of divine realities through the darkening of our own human insights. Pseudo Dionysius, “The Mystical Theology” in Complete Works,
New York: Paulist Press, 1987, Chap. II, p. 138; St. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mt. Carmel,
prol. 5-6, Washington: ICS Publications, 1991, p. 116.