Twelve years ago I spent a fortnight in Tamil Nadu in South-East India, as a guest of the local diocese. It was an amazing experience, for which I am extremely grateful. One of the many things that I found strange was how salty the food was there. In the West we are generally told that salt is bad for you, and causes high blood pressure. However, because of the heat and humidity in India, you perspire an awful lot. In order to stay healthy in such an environment you need to consume a lot of water and salt — much more than I was accustomed to. But for people living in hot places, such as the Holy Land in Our Lord’s day (and our own), salt is a necessity. It keeps you alive.
In cooking, salt has two main functions. The first is to enhance the flavour of food, and the second is to preserve it. A bag of chips without salt just wouldn’t taste as good. In times and places without refrigeration, preserving food is both difficult and important. Jesus is referring to both these actions of salt when he says:
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” (Mt 5:13)
Here Our Lord is encouraging His followers to be the kind of people who both make life taste better, and who preserve faith. If we do not hand on a faith which saves people then we are not doing anyone any favours. As Christians we are called to show that to be ‘in Christ’ is to have life in all its fullness, and in all its richness. We do this by living out our faith in our lives. What we believe as Christians, and how we conduct ourselves, are intrinsically linked. Our actions should be grounded in our beliefs, and they should be a demonstration of our faith in our lives. We can turn away from the moral decay of the world around us, to live the life of the Kingdom here and now. Jesus’ message is stark and uncompromising. One way of life leads to death, the other to life.
Jesus then uses a different image:
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” (Mt 5:14)
As well as being salt, Christians are called to be lights, to act as beacons in a world of darkness. A city on a hill is visible and recognisable. It helps you know where you are, and where you are heading. We all use the landmarks we know to help us to navigate on our journeys. As living lights we help others to navigate through the journey of life.
Our Lord continues His advice:
“Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Mt 5:15-16)
The Standard lamps we put in our living rooms are not a new thing. Since ancient times, people have known that the higher up a lamp is, the better it illuminates a room. Likewise the light of faith lived out in a Christian’s life needs to be visible. Jesus says that we are the light of the world. We should hide away our faith as a matter of private devotion which does not affect the rest of our lives. Our faith needs to be seen by others. By putting a lamp on a stand it can shed its light around and shine brightly in the darkness. By living out our faith in all aspects of our lives we let our light shine, so that others may follow our example. In doing so we give glory to God by living the life of a faithful follower of Christ.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.” (Mt 5:17)
Our Lord concludes this section of His teaching by underlining the fact that what He teaches is the fulfilment of the Law and the prophets. Jesus is not abolishing what went before, but deepening its meaning, and reminding people of how God wants us to live.
The first reading from the prophet Isaiah is clear in its commitment to justice and care for the poor and oppressed:
‘Thus says the Lord: Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you;’ (Isa 58:7-8)
Here we see faith lived out in action, being compared to light shining forth. This is the same image as in Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel. Christ does not abolish, but rather fulfils the teaching of the prophets. The point is not our own glorification, but rather God’s. When faith is put into action, God is glorified.
Jesus calls us to live the life of the Kingdom, here and now. However the values of the Kingdom of God — love, mercy, forgiveness, generosity — are counter-cultural. Christ displays the values of the Kingdom most fully in His Passion and Death, where the relationship between the human and the Divine is healed and restored. This is why St Paul can claim:
‘And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.’ (1Cor 2:1-2)
Nothing matter to Paul except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Because in Jesus and His Crucifixion we see the extent of God’s love for us. This outpouring of divine love is something which we cannot earn, and do not deserve, but which is lavished upon us so that we might have eternal life in God. The proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ remains the same today. God loves us, He died for us, so that we might live in Him.
So then, my brothers and sisters, let us live out our faith and be the salt of the earth. Let us bring flavour to a world which can be bland and selfish. Let us share our bread with the hungry, and shine the light of the Kingdom of God in the darkness of this world. Let us invite others to share in Christ’s salt and light and to give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed all might, majesty, glory dominion and power, now, and forever. Amen.