The Giver, not the gift: Sunday reflection

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.”

How do we glorify God in our lives? Or better yet, how should we glorify God? We see people using all sorts of methods to do so, from athletes on the playing field to neighbors and friends around us. It’s easy to consider the former, since they’re much more visible about their approach. Some football players have created a tradition of praying at the end of the game together on the field, quietly but in view, with members of both teams participating. Other athletes will start off every post-game interview by praising the Lord, sometimes for the victory or their own performance, or sometime just on their own.

The rest of us try in our own quiet way to find the right way to praise Him, depending on the circumstances. A former pastor of ours who has moved on to bigger things has a well-earned reputation as a homilist, as well as someone with keen insight. When people would praise him for either, he routinely gave an answer that always impressed me. Paraphrased, he would say (and almost certainly still does), “Whatever you found effective came from the Holy Spirit; the rest came from me.”

I asked him about that once and teased him about being a bit too humble. He was, I think, a bit surprised at that and insisted it wasn’t humility at all. The gifts he had came from the Holy Spirit, and their effectiveness came from his cooperation with the Holy Spirit in putting them to use. Giving God the glory wasn’t a case of humility; it was justice.

This was long before I began writing these Sunday reflections, but it didn’t take long before I understood exactly what my former pastor meant.  Often, I write these and then the substance of them goes quickly out of mind. When I read them, I occasionally can’t quite recall how I made the connections within them. When I began writing these several years ago, it was specifically to discern on gifts and their use, and the process has given me answers I didn’t expect to get.

In our second reading today, Paul sums up this succinctly to the Corinthians. Paul would become the greatest theologian of the early Church and was well on his way to gaining that reputation in his lifetime. In his first letter to this community, though, Paul rejects this explicitly. All he knows, Paul writes, is Christ, and it’s Christ who does the work through him:

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, proclaiming the mystery of God, I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of Spirit and power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

Paul goes on to discuss the issue of gifts and the Spirit later in the same letter, having established here that the source of these is not “human wisdom” but the Lord. “Now there are varieties of gifts,” Paul writes, “but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service but the same Lord.” The service comes from us but the gifts come from Him, which is why we give all glory to the Lord.

It is in this cooperation, however, that the Lord’s plan unfolds. In our Gospel reading today, Jesus makes this clear in his exhortation to puts His gifts to use for the salvation of others. What good are gifts that are never opened? They are as useful as lamps under a bushel basket. It is only by putting these gifts to use in the world, Jesus instructs, that anyone will be saved at all and become children of God. That is their very purpose.

In that cooperation, however, as we align our wills to His, that works becomes ours as well. “Your light must shine before others,” Jesus says, “that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father.” It is that cooperation in salvation which will open the eyes of the spiritually blind, and which will reflect its glory where it justly belongs — to God, and not to us. But as we cooperate more and more, we become closer and closer to the Trinitarian life and eventually have our share in that glory and redemption.

Therefore, let us go and glorify the Lord at all times with the gifts He has given us. That is where our true happiness lies, at the point of greatest cooperation with the Holy Spirit.

Note: If you liked any part of this reflection, you know Whom to praise. And if you like this note, thank my former pastor.

The front-page image is a detail from a 1684 Arabic manuscript of the Gospels, copied in Egypt by Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib (likely a Coptic monk). In the collection of The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Md. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“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.