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February 6: Fifth Sunday Ordinary Time Year A
Readings: Is 58:7-10; 1 Cor 2:1-5; Mt 5:13-16
Light, salt and effective witness, are the key words that lead us into the central message of this Sunday. The readings use the metaphors of light and salt to underline the importance of being faithful witnesses of Jesus Christ. In the first reading, the Israelites are reminded that true faithfulness does not consist in external signs of prayer and fasting alone, but more particularly in giving bread to the hungry and bringing relief to the oppressed. “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn.” Psalm 112 used this Sunday, reinforces the same theme of light in relation to faithfulness. “Light shines through the darkness for the upright.”
In the Gospel, Jesus uses two metaphors in his teaching: the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We have heard that Gospel before, and it is very easy to miss the deeper meaning of the two metaphors. Let us first look at the metaphor of the salt. Why does Jesus call his disciples salt of the earth? The first obvious reason is that Jesus wants to describe the power of influence his disciples have in the situations they find themselves. Scientifically, salt is one of the most basic necessities of life. Sodium is involved in muscle contraction, including heartbeat. It is also involved in the digestion of protein. It helps to regulate the exchange of water between cells. Without salt the human body would go into convolutions, paralysis and even death. Historically, salt has always been valuable in human society, much more than it is today. It may be interesting to know that the English word "salary" comes from Latin salarium, "salary", "stipend", originally a Roman "soldier's allowance for the purchase of salt". The word comes from the neuter of the adjective salarius, "pertaining to salt," from sal - "salt". The English saying, "worth one's salt" means that someone is worth his or her wages. The hearers of Jesus would have understood the expression salt of the earth to represent a valuable commodity. They understood that Jesus’ followers were to have an extremely important role in the world, much comparable to the valuable function of salt. In the Jewish religious and liturgical sphere, salt was listed among the provisions necessary for the temple (Ezra 6:9). It was prescribed as a necessary part of cereal offerings (Lev 2:13) and burn offerings (Ezekiel 43:24). Instructions for blending incense included the addition of salt so as to keep the incense “pure and sacred” (Exodus 30:35). Because of the preservative nature of salt, a covenant sealed with salt was deemed to last forever. In saying to his disciples “you are the salt of the earth,” Jesus could have used the metaphor to underline a number of disciple qualities. 1) Just as salt can be used to treat a wound and in so doing sting, followers of Christ can sting the conscience of society, making it uncomfortable in the face of God’s truth. 2) Salt may cause thirst as it increases the body’s craving for water. Christians therefore are to live in such a way that they create a spiritual thirst for the Water of Life, Jesus Christ. 3) Just as salt adds flavor to our food, so too Christians are to live a life of witness that adds flavor to a tasteless world. 4) The best meaning for the metaphor of salt is its preservative quality. So just as salt is used to preserve food from decay and keep it fresh, so too Christians by their life of witness, can make a difference by preserving and influencing their situation in a positive way. That preservative quality of salt implies our being mixed with the affairs of this world, in order to change its flavor. We must maintain our saltiness in order to sustain our influence. The expression light of the world, perhaps comes from Isaiah, who described Israel as “light of the nations” (Is 42:6). In calling his disciples “the light of the world” Jesus refers to their radical way of life that must be distinctive and thus become witnesses for the world to see, like a city set on a mountain. Christians become the light of the world through their visible good deeds. But just as light does not draw attention to itself, but to what is in the room, so too a disciple, to be truly light of the world draws attention to the source of the light, Jesus Christ. The message for this Sunday may be summed up in three points. 1) Just as salt fulfils its function of saltiness by being mixed with food, we too must accept to be mixed with the affairs of daily life in order to give the flavor and taste of Christ to such situations. 2) We become the light of the world by our exemplary life of witness that makes others see the possibility of how to live as Christ teaches. 3) Both salt and light are most effective, when they draw attention, not to themselves, but to something beyond themselves. Similarly, disciples are more effective and faithful when they point to the source of saltiness and light, Jesus Christ.
©2011 John S. Mbinda