For several weeks we shall hear more from Matthew’s long collections of Jesus’ teaching. The focus of today’s readings is how followers of Christ should affect the world around them.
It is also Racial Justice Sunday, a date was chosen without reference to the set liturgy. The theme from Isaiah, however, of care for all according to their needs can be seen as reminding us to make no limits on the basis of racial differences.
The readings are available online here.
How well Jesus’ teaching fits with the insights of the Old Testament comes out in this reading, in which Isaiah stresses God’s concern for the poor and oppressed. There are specific examples of this in various sections of Matthew, and all these show what Jesus means by ‘good works’ in today’s Gospel. The phrase, ‘Then will your light shine like the dawn’ picks up the ‘light’ in the reading from the Gospel.
The same echoes of the light shone by one who acts justly, mercifully and generously come in the psalm response.
1 Corinthians 2:1-5
It was St Paul’s practice to evangelise as widely as possible, so after he had established a church in one place, he left it to the converts to carry on what with they had learned. This did not always go smoothly, and when Paul heard of their difficulties he responded by sending letters of advice and correction. This has had the happy result of giving us much of his teaching and his encouragement for ‘living in Christ’. These letters also show a picture of his own life and the ways he lived out his calling.
The church in Corinth had numerous problems. One of them is behind today’s selection: a dispute in the community around some claiming a special ‘knowledge’. Paul sees that their ‘philosophy’ is contrary to the gospel he had taught them. That explains his stressing that he did not use such ‘oratory or philosophy’ but spoke with the power of the Holy Spirit so that it was clear that all came from God and is no basis for human pride. This fits with the last words of our gospel selection, that the ‘light’ the disciples show is for God’s glory and not their own. It also reminds us that we need the help of God to do the ‘good works’ of caring for others.
Last week we heard what kinds of people belong to the Kingship of Heaven and this week Matthew tells them that they have an important role in that reign of God if they show others how they live out Jesus’ words. There is a ‘job description’ of the ‘Servant Israel’ in the prophecies in the book of Isaiah, 49:1-6: ‘’I shall make you a light to the nations’. This role was fulfilled in Jesus, who says in the gospel of John, ‘I am the light of the world’. Matthew shows another aspect of this as Jesus, as risen to the Father from this world, passed on his light-bearing to his disciples.
There are several comparisons expressing how Jesus sees this privilege. The first few words – ‘You are the salt of the earth’ are well known, but some find hard to explain. The basic idea is clear enough: the first disciples are small in number, but they are to have a large effect on society. Salt, although not eaten in large amounts, is an essential nutrient for humans and also used as a preservative and an antiseptic. Although the disciples start as a small group following Jesus, they will affect the whole society in essential ways of nourishing, healing and caring for. A difficulty with the parable for moderns is that we know salt is the chemical sodium chloride, and it makes no sense to speak of it not being anything but salt. We can take this as a humorous comparison contrary to fact, saying if ‘salt isn’t salty it’s no good’. Disciples need to show real signs of following Jesus. If they do not, ‘they would be ‘useless’.
Another suggestion takes it more literally, noting that in the past – and in some places now – salt is taken from deposits that are not pure sodium chloride, but contain other minerals or ‘impurities’. (In Jesus’ time salt from the Dead Sea was such a mixture.) So it is possible for the salt to be ‘become tasteless’ as our translation say if the supply came to the point where only the impurities were left. The Greek words, however, are still puzzling. They say literally ‘if the salt becomes foolish…’ This is so odd that you can see why translators find other wording. A suggestion from R. T. France is helpful. In the Aramaic language – a common speech of that time that Jesus would have used – there is one word which means both ‘become foolish’ and ‘tasteless’ so we would have the kind of verbal punning that was popular in Bible times. There are also comparisons in the Old Testament of salt as ‘wisdom’. We can choose one interpretation or accept that here could be several layers of meaning in the words Jesus used.
Salt may be said to work quietly and maybe not even noticed, but the second parable expects the disciples to be very visible in how they live the Kingship of Heaven values. There are two comparisons for this, the light that makes it possible to see what is around us, and the city on the hilltop visible from miles around.
The second statement about the lamp is slightly different. Because a lamp is lit to give useful light, it would be foolish to cover it. Like physical light, there is a kind of spiritual illumination that is needed to understand deeper truths. Disciples are to display this by their good works but also show that the Father in heaven is the true source of their goodness. Thus letting our light be seen is not for the purpose of being admired by others, not ‘showing off’. (Compare the warning later in this teaching about those who want praise for their practices, 6:1-5)
For what are the ‘good works’ the reading from Isaiah is a good example, and others are shown through the gospels, note especially the ‘Last Judgment’ where what is done to help others shows the close bond between Jesus with all those in any kind of need. (Matthew 25:34-46).
There is a symbolic illustration in the liturgy of the Easter Vigil of how ‘the light of the world, passes from Jesus to us. The large paschal candle is lit, and Christ as ‘the Light’ is proclaimed three times. Each person in the congregation has a small candle, which is then lit from the Christ candle. Thus, we act out that all the good that we have comes from God through Christ. We have no holiness that we have not been given from above. What we do have is a precious gift whose joy is for sharing with all we come into contract with.