Fifth Sunday of the Year – February 6, 1972 – CNR
In today’s Gospel we hear Jesus use two similes to describe the role of the disciples in the world. They are to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” The latter image is the one stressed in the Liturgy by the use of the reading from Isaiah, where light is promised to Israel if she will turn to feeding the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and homeless, clothing the naked, assuring justice for the weak. The image of the salt is less often remarked. Originally, it was probably addressed by Jesus to the Jewish people as a warning: if they do not recognize the hour and the Messiah in their midst, they will be discarded as insipid salt. Matthew has placed it at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, as a warning to the disciples, who inherit Israel’s function in the world and therefore stand under similar judgement.
The images are good ones as an introduction to the Sermon in which Matthew has gathered the major portopm of Jesus’ moral teaching (and which we shall be hearing in the coming weeks). They suggest some reflections on our responsibilities as the Church in the world.
In the first place, the images mark the Church off from the world. The disciples are light for a dark world, salt for an otherwise tasteless earth. This distinction need not be understood in a triumphalistic sense; it can be accepted in simple and wondering gratitude. As a minimal content, they assert that the knowledge and embracing of the message of Jesus is a blessing to have received, a blessing that the world needs to have brought to it. Jesus Christ should make a difference for the living of a human life. In similar fashion, the images also suggest that there is a criterion that permits the Church to stand over against the world, not to be the mere creature of the latest fad, so concerned with “relevance” that we ignore the distinctiveness of the word about Jesus Christ and reduce it to a pious coating for the latest liberal crusade. Perhaps Paul’s words about the contrast between the preaching of “Jesus Christ and him crucified” and “the ‘wise’ argumentation” of the world’s philosophies needs some such contemporary re-translation.
For some reason, we, the Church, seem to lack a sense of mission; and this lack, unfortunate in any circumstance, is all the more regrettable at a time of such thorough re-evaluation as marks our time and culture. If we cannot provide, merely on the basis of the Gospel-message, a concrete solution to the problems that vex our lives, still surely the Christian understanding and evaluation of human life ought to be one of the voices crying to be heard in our times. At least we ought to let people know that we are here and that we believe we have something to say. It may be, of course, that we think the message has generally gotten through, that our culture still retains the main lines at least of the Christian ethic. I have my doubts that this is true; there seem enough reasons to think that to take the Gospel seriously will increasingly mean taking a stance against the dominant cultural or official national policies. That is a distinction we American Catholics are not accustomed to entertain.
What underlies these remarks is a conviction that we cannot so easily make a distinction between Church and State, Christianity and culture, as has been assumed. A culture is a definition of man; a nation’s character embodies a certain understanding and evaluation of human life. These are not neutral, value-free undertakings; they are the works of man, and as such, come under Gospel-judgement and can be aided by Gospel-grace. Far more than we commonly notice, they form our individual views of what life is all about, so that it is unrealistic to try to form individual character in ourselves or in our children without attending to the reigning cultural interpretations. Watch a typical television show, or even better, the advertisements, and judge or evaluate their usually unstated assumptions about human life, whether individual, in family, or in society.
What is sad is that the culture-makers are so infrequently obliged even to react to Christian judgements and values. It has been some time since Church-leaders have been conspicuous heralds of a distinctive Christian message, and I am not sure that we, in our several positions, are any less subject to judgement. But, either we have a word to speak and to live or we do not. If we do not, then let us admit it. But, if we do, then let us have more confidence in it. Paul spoke of his message, which could hardly have been more unwelcome or unusual in the ancient world, as possessing the “convincing power of the Spirit.” That is a sense of confidence we have lost. At least let us give each other and our contemporaries a chance to knock up against the Gospel. We and they may not be converted, but at least it will be possible to say that the reason is not that no one ever mentioned that Jesus Christ has something to say about human life.
5TH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR – FEBRUARY 4, 1996 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
The brief Gospel passage we have just heard follows upon the Beatitudes we heard last week and precedes the astonishing call to deep Christian discipleship we will hear next week as we are plunged into the heart of the Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes announce the great blessedness of the age which Jesus introduces, the great gift of the Kingdom; the Sermon on the Mount will set out the “greater holiness,” deeper interiority, that alone can match so great a blessing. And today the scene is set, and anticipation stirred, by Jesus’ call to his disciples to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
The metaphors at once distinguish the disciples from the world and relate them to it. Salt is not itself food, but gives flavor to it. Light does not exist for its own sake, any more than a lamp should be put under a basket: light is for illumination: its purpose lies outside itself. Both aspects of the metaphors are crucial: the salt has to retain its flavor to be of any use; the light has to be put on a stand.
Putting it more prosaically, perhaps we might say that we have here at once a call to understand and to preserve our identity and a demand that this identity be realized in a mission. Identity and mission: two themes that recur quite often in contemporary debate within the Church. (One area concerns the nature of a Catholic university, with some people wishing to stress one or the other: a distinct identity as Catholic vs. a universal mission. But to pursue this will turn this sermon into a lecture: not an uncommon complaint about my homilies!) The issue is a prior one; it concerns the Church as a whole, which means it concerns us, here gathered as the Church. What is our identity and what mission flows from it and realizes it in the world? And I wish to point the issue by telling a true story.
Some years ago in a Bronx parish, a white teenager at a Catholic high school was murdered by a black teenager from the public high school, the second such tragedy within six months. Tensions were very high, and racist calls for revenge were being heard. The mourners for the white victim gather for his funeral. What is at stake in this funeral, at which the Christian church gathers? Is it not, beyond the question of surrendering the dead boy into the arms of a merciful God from whom we pray that he might have eternal life, also the question of what sort of history will be created in that portion of the Bronx? Will a future historian have to report that the funeral was the occasion for an intensification of racial hatred, that after the burial of the boy, white Catholics went on a rampage against blacks in the area? Or will the future historian have to report that the funeral was the occasion on which whites and blacks, Catholics and non-Catholics, began to look for ways of ending the racial animosity? My example is not far-fetched: you can watch funeral processions in the former Yugoslavia, in northern Ireland, in Africa, in the Middle East, which become moments at which tensions become worse, not better.
But suppose the preacher at the boy’s funeral recalls another unjust and stupidly early death, the death of Jesus of Nazareth; suppose he reminds his congregation that his dying words were of forgiveness for those who crucified him; suppose he reminds them of the Sermon on the Mount; suppose he reminds them that St. Paul summed up Christ’s mission as a work of reconciliation, breaking down the wall of separation; suppose he reminds them that in a few minutes they will all, white and black, come up to receive from the altar-table the body that was broken because of their sins and the blood poured out for their forgiveness, and that when they receive that Body they become that Body, and that in that Body there can be neither Jew nor Greek, nor slave nor free, nor male nor female, nor black nor white, but they are all one person in Christ; suppose he tells them that if they don’t believe that they do not recognize the real Body of the Lord.
Suppose he were to say something like all that. Would that not be a call back to the most central, defining, essential elements of the Church? Would it not be a call for the Church to be the Church? And would not the Church’s being faithfully the Church make the world different? Because there is a faithful, authentic Church, the world, meaning quite specifically that area of the Bronx, is different than it would be were there no such Church. Now the number of people following the lex talionis, “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” is smaller. Now the number of people trying to forgive as they have been forgiven is larger. The world, humanity, is different because there is an authentic Church. At least in one small part of the world, among one portion of humanity, history–what human beings do with their freedom–is different, and the difference is attributable to Jesus Christ, the difference is the existence of an authentic Church.
This is one example of what it means for the Church, for disciples, for you and me, to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, for our identity also to be our mission. We do not have to choose between what we do here today as the Church and what we do the rest of the week in “the world.” We do not come here in order to get away from the world. We also are the world; we share in the great historic task of making the world what it is and will be; and we are supposed to do that precisely as Christians and as the Church. Our mission requires our identity, and our identity is realized in our mission. Our task flows from God’s great gift, and God’s great gift is not meant to be hoarded but to be the great gift we ourselves can give.