This morning’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.”
This morning, as I usually do, I treated myself to a breakfast of scrambled eggs and sausage, sans toast, as I’m trying to cut down on breads in the new year. This has become a Sunday morning ritual for me, almost a ballet in the kitchen. I set up the medication trays for the week for my wife and me (middle age is an adventure!) while the oven preheats and then the sausage cooks, and then time the scrambled eggs in the microwave so that everything gets done at the same time. My wife has learned to stay out of my way as I do this little pas des oeufs each weekend.
But here’s the catch: I can make scrambled eggs come out perfectly in the microwave (really!), but … they’re still scrambled eggs. Even though it’s my favorite way to eat eggs — the only way I like them, really — they’re still bland in both taste and texture. In order to make them taste good, I have to add something to them. I could add salsa, cheese, pepper, or a combination of these, but I always start with salt. Salt adds flavor by itself, but also by bringing out the more subtle flavor of the eggs themselves rather than just masking it with different flavors.
Salt has become a ubiquitous commodity in modern times, but it was not always so. Before then, salt was an absolute necessity for preserving meat, not just for flavoring it, and it carried a significant price. In Ezra 4:14, the servants of Artaxerxes proclaimed their loyalty to the king by writing, “Now because we eat the salt of the palace and it is not fitting for us to witness the king’s dishonor, therefore we send and inform the king, in order that search may be made in the book of the records of your fathers.” Salt also had additional significance to the Israelites as a preservative of another kind. In 2 Kings 2:19-22, Elisha purifies the bad water of a spring with a bowl of salt, and in Ezekiel 43:24, the prophet instructs Israel to sprinkle salt on its sacrifices at the altar.
When Jesus tells the people gathered for the Sermon on the Mount that they are called to be “salt of the earth,” it would have been understood in all of these contexts. That includes flavor, which is the context that would spring first into the modern mind, but even that should be viewed with some nuance. Salt brings out the natural flavors of that to which it is added. As Christians, we are called to bring out the true flavors of the world, those which have been dulled through sin and ignorance of the Lord.
Jesus also calls us to be preservation for the world as well. We do this by living the Word of God and teaching it to others within the communities of the world. Put it this way: Salt doesn’t preserve meat by sitting in a bag on the shelf next to it. Salt acts as a preservative by combining with that it is meant to preserve — taking an active role in preservation, or in the eschatological sense salvation.
This is a call to mission, not just to self-improvement. Jesus calls His people to perseverance, warning about what happens when “salt loses its flavor” — it becomes without value at all, neither for flavor or for salvation, and then becomes if anything an impediment to the mission. In Revelation 3:15-16, the angel says, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.”
This prompts the larger question: to what mission has Jesus called His church, His people, the “salt of the earth”? Jesus explains in this same Gospel; we are called to be “the light of the world,” and most pointedly “a city set on a mountain.” That describes Jerusalem, a reference that those at the Sermon on the Mount would have easily understood. The Lord intended Israel to be a nation of priests to call all other nations to Jerusalem to hear God’s word, but instead the Israelites aspired to worldly power and alliances rather than trusting in the Lord, and fell into idolatry.
The plan for salvation will take the priests into the world rather than call the world to the priests. In this sermon, Jesus calls his disciples to spread out across the earth on the mission of salvation, “salting” it with the light of salvation. “Your light must shine before others,” Jesus says, “that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” It is a foreshadowing of the Great Commission to come at the end of Matthew.
In this, Jesus not only tells us the mission and the plan, but how we are called to accomplish it. This echoes our first reading from Isaiah 58:7-10. The prophet tells Israel that the Lord has commanded them to share what they have to the hungry, give refuge to the oppressed and homeless, clothe the naked, and take care of those in our own communities too. If we do that, Isaiah prophesies, “then light shall rise for us in the darkness.”
At first blush, this seems merely to be the correct path of charity and neighborliness. However, we are called to do this not by proclaiming our own virtue, but through the grace of Christ. Paul instructs the Corinthians in his first letter about understanding the nature of our relationship with the Lord as part of these efforts. “I did not come with sublimity of words or wisdom,” Paul reminds the fractious church in Corinth, but “in weakness and fear and much trembling[.]” It was the message of salvation as “a demonstration of Spirit and power” that converted them and put them on the path to salvation. Only then will people comprehend the truth of salvation, Paul explains, “so that your faith may not rest on human wisdom but on the power of God.”
We are called to be the salt of the earth, a city on a mountain, and to spread the light of the Word to all people — not as ways to aggrandize ourselves, but to lead people to the glory of God. We are not the flavor, but the catalyst for the flavor to emerge. We are not salvation, but the servants of salvation. But those who allow themselves to become instruments of the Lord’s will become treasures of His heart — the children of God.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.