5th Sunday of Ordinary Time
In the book of Genesis, the promise made to Abraham had two parts: “I will bless you”, and “You shall be a blessing”. The beatitudes which we heard last Sunday correspond to the first part, “I will bless you”; and this morning’s Gospel corresponds to the second part, “You shall be a blessing”.
The beatitudes are about the domestic affairs of the kingdom of heaven, and today’s Gospel is about foreign relations. Last Sunday we heard about grace, the blessedness within; and this Sunday the Gospel speaks about usefulness to others, because the disciples of Christ are known not only by their personal character, but also by their influence on others, including their fellow Christians and fellow monks.
Christ uses two metaphors to describe the foreign policy of the kingdom of heaven. “Salt” suggests the conservative side, and “light” the liberal side of the politics of the kingdom, but there is no conflict between the two sides: they are two sides of the same coin of the realm. Christian people, if they are what they claim to be, are all conservatives and all liberals: conservers of all that is good, and diffusers of all that sheds light. Each of these sides of Christian influence is presented in succession.
First, Jesus said to his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth”. In the ancient world, salt was the most common preservative. The Greek writer Plutarch had an unusual way of putting that. He says that meat is actually part of a dead body, and if it’s left to itself, it will go bad. But salt preserves it and keeps it fresh, and so (he says) it’s like a new soul inserted into a dead body. For him, salt conserves the good qualities of meat and keeps it from corruption.
So if Christians are to be the salt of the earth, they should be the conservative influence in any society or monastery. They should be the ones who by their presence defeat corruption and make it easier for others to be good Christians and good monks.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “You are the light of the world” Light has a way of giving and spending itself, and therefore it is associated with the liberal side of the kingdom of heaven. The special quality of light is to diffuse itself, to spread brightness on everything around it. The symbol of light is complementary to the symbol of salt: salt shows that true Christians exert a great deal of silent, unobserved influence, like salt hidden in a mass.
But along with that, light shows that Christians are like a city built on a hill-top, the hill-top of Calvary, where the Lord of glory was crucified. The crucified Christ, whom St Paul was always proclaiming, is the source of light in every Christian heart. Christ didn’t light this lamp so that we could keep it to ourselves. It is the power of God, and it is meant to shine in the sight of others.
“Do not turn back on your own”, says the prophet Isaiah in the first reading. “Remove from your midst false accusation and malicious speech”. What then? “Then light shall rise for you in the darkness”. In other words, as Christ says in the Gospel, “your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify” – not you, but – “your heavenly Father”.
Today’s Gospel closes the first great division of what we may call the Constitution of Christendom. It began with “the people of good will”; it showed the way to “peace on earth” last Sunday, and today it closes with “Glory to God in the highest”. The Gospel of the Kingdom is one long echo of the song of the angels. May this Eucharist strengthen us to give glory to God in the highest, and bring peace on earth to people of good will.