5th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Feb. 9, 2014
Matt 5: 13-16
Is 58: 7-10
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison, N.Y.
“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘You are the salt of the earth’” (Matt 5: 13).
Can you imagine snack foods without salt—chips, pretzels, peanuts? Pretty bland, huh? Nowadays most of us use salt to flavor a lot of our food, such as meat, fish, vegetables, potatoes, soups, and sauces. (Some use it more carefully than others because too much salt can have bad effects on our health.) Not so many years ago, salt was also used widely as a preservative for meat and fish, so they would keep for many months without spoiling; I suppose that’s still done in places where refrigeration isn’t available.
Thus Jesus is telling his disciples that they are to give flavor to the world, and they are to preserve the world, or keep it from going bad.
Jesus also warns about salt’s going bad, “losing its taste” (5:13). That can’t happen, in fact —not with natural salt. But plainly it can happen with Christians; Christians can “lose their flavor,” can stop being preservative agents in the world. And then? They’ll be discarded, like the weeds (Matt 13:24-30) and the bad fish (13:47-50) in other parables of Jesus about the separation of good people from evil.
Jesus goes on to compare his authentic disciples to lamps: “You are the light of the world” (5:14). When he says our light must shine before mankind (5:16), what does he mean? Obviously not our haloes, because those exist only in art. No, Jesus says that people must see our good deeds, deed which give glory to God (5:16) by reflecting God’s goodness, or letting God’s goodness shine transparently thru us, like the light coming thru the stained glass windows there (at least on a sunny day) that depict St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and St. Vincent de Paul. The lives of the saints, and our lives, are our witness or testimony that God is alive in us, that we are children of the light and not of darkness.
What sorts of good deeds do the children of light perform so that the divine light will shine before mankind? In today’s 1st reading the prophet Isaiah commands us, in God’s name, to share our bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless, clothe the naked, take in our own people when they’re in need: “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn … and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard” (58:7-8), i.e., a protection for us against our enemies. He goes on to tell us to stop oppressing people—we might think about the way we treat some family members or co-workers; and to remove false accusations and malicious speech from our behavior—things like gossip, lies, even sarcasm: “Then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday” (58:9-10).
Some of these “enlightening” actions are the same ones that Jesus explicitly commands in his parable of the Last Judgment—another parable involving the separation of good people from evil ones; the basis of the Lord’s judgment is our treatment of the needy: the hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned, sick, etc. Looking after the poor, the homeless, the refugee, the sick is not an option for the disciples of Jesus; it is a command. The Christian who has no flavor of salt “is good for nothing except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Matt 5:13), is as useful as a lamp stuck under a bushel basket (5:15).
If you’ve been following the news about the Affordable Care Act, aka “Obamacare,” and the Catholic Church, as well as other Christians and members of some other religions, you know that the Obama Administration is distinguishing between churches, like your parish church, and directly religious activities like the parish school, the CCD program, and seminaries; and other activities carried on by churches, such as universities, hospitals, soup kitchens, nursing homes, orphanages, all the activities of Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services. The ACA requires all employers to provide insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization, and abortion—all of which are immoral acts in which we may not take part or help others to take part in. The Obama Administration says that only directly religious activity—church, parish school, religious education—is excused from this ACA requirement; indirectly religious activities like St. Vincent’s Hospital are not excused.
But what did we just hear in the Gospel and in the prophet Isaiah? Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless, taking in our own people—all of these are demanded of us. We can’t be disciples of Jesus if we don’t do them. That applies not only to us individually—and of course there’s only a limited amount that we can do individually —but also and especially to us collectively, to us as the Catholic Church (or other religious organizations). That’s why we set up hospitals—like St. Vincent’s—and orphanages, nursing homes, summer camps, soup kitchens, universities, and all manner of social services. We must do so! And that’s why we resist the Administration’s demands that we perform or support immoral actions and claim our First Amendment rights—which come from God, not from the government—to practice our religion freely and without interference. That's why 40-something religious organizations have taken the government to court.
Proclaiming various hard truths in our society—about what is truly good and what is grossly evil—is one way in which the Church and we as individual Catholics act as lights set on a lampstand for all to see. Of course we must not only proclaim the truth. We must also turn our words into deeds that shine before everyone.