Homily for Sunday 5A, 6th February 2011
“You are the salt of the earth”. The image of salt is evocative in many ways. In its first and most obvious sense, salt is added to food to give it taste and savour. A very little goes a long way. In that respect we readily recall the parable of the leaven (13:33). There also we have something that seems insignificant in quantity: yet which possesses transforming power.
In the pre-modern world salt was also a primary preserver of food, keeping it from corruption. So the book of Sirach lists salt as one of the necessities of life, along with things like water and fire, clothing and oil (39:26). For the Jews also salt had another dimension entirely, for they associated it with the holiness of divine worship. Moses in the law prescribed that salt be added to sacrifices, whether of animals or of grain (cf. Lev 2:13; Ezk 43:24). He also wanted it mixed in with the special incense that would burn before the Lord. Presumably behind this was the sense that salt has purifying qualities. So the second book of Kings tells of a village whose water supply became foul and noxious. The Prophet Elisha threw in salt, and the water was made sweet and wholesome again (2 K 2:20). On another level entirely, salt was widely regarded in the ancient world as a symbol of wit or wisdom in speech (cf. Col 4:6).
Whichever of these senses might have been uppermost in his mind, there’s no doubt at all that Jesus intended to pay his hearers a big compliment. You are salt - for all the earth. You are light - for the whole world. Who is he talking to? If we take the verse that immediately precedes this, then it is specifically “you who are abused and persecuted and falsely calumniated on my account”. Or more generally we could say it is You: the people who answer to the description of the Beatitudes. You, who accept as your law and standard of conduct the Sermon on the Mount. You: this motley collection of provincial peasant farmers, fishermen, artisans, small traders and petty public officials. You, my disciples; You, the Church; You, sitting here at Mass today. On you I bestow this great honour. To you I give this high vocation, this vast responsibility, this tremendous mission.
These words of the Lord will often be confirmed in the course of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Later, for example, Jesus will say to his disciples: I give you authority over unclean spirits (10:1); Do not be afraid, for every hair of your head has been counted (10:31); To you it has been given to understand the mysteries of the Kingdom (13:11); Blessed are your eyes because they see, your ears because they hear (13:17); Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven (18:18); Come, you whom my Father has blessed; take possession of the Kingdom prepared for you (25:34); and finally at the end: Go, make disciples of all nations (28:20).
But what if the salt becomes tasteless? What if disciples of Jesus be found who lack poverty of spirit; or are not gentle, or merciful, or pure in heart, or peacemakers? What if we choose rather to deny Christ than suffer for him? What, finally, if at the Last Judgement we be found without love in our hearts?
The sentence Jesus pronounces here is terrible. Salt like this is to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. Again, we encounter a prominent feature of St. Matthew’s Gospel, in this theme of a final separation of bad from good. We think, for example, of the chaff that is cleared from the threshing floor and burned (3:12); of the house built on sand, whose fall was very great (7:27); of seed that was sown only to wither away (13:6); of the guest who refused to put on a wedding garment (22:12); of the bridesmaids who neglected to put oil in their lamps (25:3); of a talent that was freely given, but uselessly buried (25:18). As for this good-for-nothing servant, says the Master in that parable, throw him into the darkness outside, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
It may be that words of condemnation like this cause us to feel some unease. What must be the case, then, for a monk who is prompted, on the occasion of a forthcoming Jubilee, to look back on his years in the monastery? What if he is intensely aware of multiple and habitual failures to come up to the high expectations placed in him by the Lord, and by His Church? Perhaps his salt is not utterly corrupted, or his light entirely put out. He may, nevertheless, consider with dismay a record of discipleship that seems at least a bit insipid, and dim. Can there be any hope for such a one as that?
Actually, I think there can. A Jubilee celebration can be a moment for such a person, however miserable a sinner he might be, to reflect not on his own, but on God’s fidelity. And that must be cause only for limitless rejoicing, and thanksgiving, and praise. Suscipe me Domine, sang the monk at his profession: and God did. Et non confundas me - and He didn’t.
Someone recently asked me what have been the highlights of my 25 years as a professed monk. I think I have to say that there’s been one every day. It seems to me that no other highlight can compare with the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, which always remains the highlight of everything. Through all those years it’s been there: a daily guarantee of Christ’s presence, of his love, of his continuing and ever-available grace.
Pope Benedict recently remarked (Verbum Domini, Sept 2010) that it’s the Eucharist that opens us to an understanding of Holy Scripture, just as Scripture illumines and explains the mystery of the Eucharist.
So it’s above all in the Holy Eucharist that we see how we are Salt and Light: how we are invested with great dignity and also great responsibility. We are those for whom Jesus died; and those who share his risen life. That’s our dignity. And our responsibility is not just to proclaim what we have heard, but into the midst of the ordinary and largely unbelieving world to carry Christ’s life: to bear God. And we do that not just one by one, but together. In so far as we truly participate in the Holy Eucharist, we are constituted as the Church, as a communion of love. Our business is then to bear witness to that in our daily life: to be visible signs and instruments of that communion, that love. In addition, as the intercessions of the Mass show, our love is to find practical and concrete expression, as it turns towards the whole world, and especially towards the poor, the oppressed, those who mourn.
Then if ever we be given the blessed opportunity to bear some fruit for the Kingdom in a way that’s visible and manifest, in keeping with the whole direction of the Mass, we turn it all to God’s glory: for he is very good, and his mercy is without end.
Fr Benedict Hardy OSB