Sunday reflection: Matthew 5:13–16
posted at 10:01 am on February 9, 2014 by Ed Morrissey
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular Green Room feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection only represents my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion.
Today’s gospel reading is Matthew 5:13–16:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”
Here we have three wonderful analogies of the Church in the world from Jesus, in an instruction that presages the Great Commission at the end of Matthew (Matt 28-16-20). Later, in those passages, the risen Christ would transform his disciples into apostles — those sent out — to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” In this passage, Jesus foreshadows that mission and the Church to come, hinting at the scope of that commission long before the disciples realized the nature of Jesus’ sacrifice.
The analogies here speak of the disciples and the Church in terms of presence, vision, and taste — but not of speech or instruction, oddly enough, even though Matt 28:16 is sometimes translated as “go and teach all nations.” Jesus does not provide an analogy of instruction as such in this passage. Instead, all three of these examples speak of providing an example to the world, and specifically in the world — but not of the world, as we’ll see.
The emphasis on example is perhaps strongest in the second and third analogies. The disciples would have understood immediately the reference to the “city on a mountain” — Jerusalem. The mission of the nation of Israel had always been to be that “city on a mountain,” a community of priests to instruct the world on the Word of God. God intended Jerusalem to be a lamp to all nations, bringing His light into the world, the nations of which would come to the city on the mountain and see the light for themselves through His holy people and their devotion to Him.
The Israelites failed to sustain that mission almost from the moment it was given with the making of the golden calf after the Exodus, and later with the corruption of Jerusalem through idol worship as the kings of Israel desired worldly power over serving the mission of God. This is why the Messiah was necessary for salvation. Jesus tells the disciples that their light would “shine before others” through their “good deeds,” which would then “glorify your heavenly Father.”
The prophet Isaiah proclaims this as well in our first reading today, Isaiah 58:7-10. The prophet tells Israel that the Lord calls them to specific action — to share their bread with the hungry, clothe the naked, remove oppression, and satisfy the afflicted as their atonement. In this passage, Isaiah also uses light as an analogy, saying that “your light will break forth like the dawn,” and also that “light shall rise for you in the darkness.” Following the Lord’s command would mean that “the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard” against the Israelites’ enemies, with their “vindication” in the vanguard.
All of this is predicated on action, rather than just instruction. The city on the mountain is no longer Jerusalem, but the Church. Although they did not know it yet, the paradigm would be reversed: Jesus would send them out into the world rather than having the world come to Jerusalem. Since the nations would not come to the original city on the mountain due to its failures (and its coming fall), the Church would come to the nations of the world to set an example — the example that Jerusalem was intended to provide — and bring the light of the Gospel, set aflame by their works of mercy so that all nations would be converted. Instead of making pilgrims of all nations to Jerusalem, the Church would become a pilgrim to all nations for Christ.
Paul suggests the same in today’s reading from 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. “I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom,” Paul wrote to the church in Corinth. “My message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of Spirit and power…” Paul certainly taught with words, too, especially in the letters we have today that continue his teachings. But teaching alone wasn’t enough; Jesus tells his disciples had to set an example, to live their faith rather than just teach it, in order to fulfill their mission and that of the Church.
The analogy of salt is the most interesting in this context, too. Salt had two purposes in the time of the disciples, and to this day: to season and to preserve. It was also highly valued, and Roman soldiers were paid in salt (which is where we get the word “salary,” by the way). The Gospel explicitly mentions taste and warns that a Church that loses its flavor and its value is worthless. This would become a particular problem in Corinth, as I have written before, where the early Christian community had trouble keeping its “flavor,” thanks to the social pressures to conform to the hedonistic norm. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is in essence the same warning Jesus gives the disciples, which relates to the failure of Jerusalem and Israel in their mission. They became too enamored of fitting into the practices of the world instead of serving as an example of God’s law. Jerusalem would soon be trampled underfoot in 70 AD, and although no one knew that at the time of 1 Corinthians, Paul warns that the same would happen to Christian communities if the distinctiveness of living God’s law and the example that set was lost. Without that flavor, the preservation of the Church would be impossible, and salvation for the nations of the world lost as the light faltered and the city on the mountain fell.
This is why all three passages emphasize action, and not just proclamation. Action creates examples, and living a faith acts to preserve it much more effectively than just talking about it. The church in Corinth fell into that error, and Paul had to rescue it from its own lack of flavor and value. We are called to live our faith in the world so that the light of God’s love through Jesus can be seen by all, rather than fit our faith into our worldly concerns or merely discuss it. That is our pilgrimage, and we make it every day.