Isaiah 58, 7-10 + Psalm 112 + 1 Corinthians 2, 1-5 + Matthew 5, 13-16
When I was in college, I only took one semester of chemistry at the end of which Father Thomas suggested that I switch to botany. He held me responsible for several minor explosions in the lab, and I guess he thought I could do less damage with trees and leaves. I learned a lot that semester however, even though I was one of the few students who ever turned on the exhaust fan in that glass box in the corner of the lab where things would sometimes go “Boom!” In our lab, sodium stored in kerosene would go “boom” when mixed with water in air. I know this from experience, and then I took Botany. The other part of salt is chloride which doesn’t exactly go “boom” when you mess with it, but it does stink up the place. I thought you ought to know these things in order to get into these verses of Matthew’s Gospel. It isn’t that you need to know about my unrealized dreams of being a chemist; but in order to get to the bottom of what Jesus is talking about.
Light has something to do with electromagnetic stuff which I think they got into in the second semester of chemistry. By that time I was in Botany with Father Richard, and of course, the whole magic of photosynthesis unfolded. Without light there is no life. Those green plants that need light turn carbon dioxide into food. It awakens plants to life and growth. It lets us see and add color. At the time of Jesus spoke, salt was very essential and precious thing. Living in that climate where perspiration was constant, bodies depleted of salt were not healthy. Without salt no food could be preserved for any length of time. It was hot there. The only light came from oil lamps or crude candles which blew out easily, and was probably only available to the wealthiest. So most people were in the dark when the sun went down.
So, with this in mind, we hear these verses that come immediately after the verses we call, “The Beatitudes”. We would have heard the Beatitudes proclaimed last week had we not celebrated the Feast of the Presentation. There is a very sudden change that takes place here. Jesus has been speaking to the multitude, and he has been speaking in very general terms about “those”, about others who are Blest. Then suddenly he shifts and says: “Blest are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of slander against you because of me. Be glad and rejoice, for your reward in heaven is great. You are the salt of the earth….”
Now he speaks to us. He speaks to anyone who is willing to take him seriously and step up and step into his mission and his work. He tells us what we are to become as disciples. He takes us past superficial ideas we toy with in life like being a chemist or botanist to a deeper sense of what our first vocation in life truly is: salt and light. We are the ones the living Christ still speaks to in this church when the Living Word is proclaimed here.
When life in this world is dull and without flavor, without excitement and joy, it is because there is no salt, nothing to sustain its life, keep things is in balance, and maybe even a little “boom” now and then like fireworks celebrating a great event. The darkness of this world made all the gloomy by injustice and violence is due to one thing, a lack of light, the kind of light exposes evil, that adds color and nourishment reflecting the smile of God and the divine presence everywhere. Where is this to come from? The answer is here in these words of Jesus Christ.
For those who hunger for justice and peace, we make this world taste better. Yet when we lose our confidence in what we are called to be, we drain the resources of those who are trying to make a difference. As light in this world, we make it possible to see God at work in a world that is too blind by self-serving ambition and greed to see anything at all except the next opportunity to grab more stuff! That kind of world is gray and dull, full of depression and gloom, hopeless and shallow. Proclaiming this Gospel in February, a month of dark days and long nights, a month psychiatrists know is a month of danger for those living with depression is a very wise choice, for this Gospel contains a message of hope offered to this world by those who know who they are as disciples of Jesus Christ filled with passion and purpose.
Salt and light are powerful agents. With zest and beauty, in little ways and magnificent efforts,life comes to those in need because of us. At the very beginning of his mission and public life in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus lays out his plan for us who are called to be his followers. Making people hunger for a taste of God, bringing people to see the presence of God and wonder at God’s beauty is what and who we are. When this world begins to glorify God revealed by our goodness, gentleness, mercy, and love, when this world begins to reflect the creator and all humankind truly and unmistakably bears the image of God’s love, we will have realized our vocation within the mission of Christ.