Reflection on the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
I love the story of the woman who was telling her grandchild about the “Flight into Egypt” — how an angel told Joseph to take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. There was a pause and then a question from the child. “What happened to the flea?” “What flea?” “The one they were supposed to take with them to Egypt.” Clearly, giving close attention to the presence of specific words can help us to have a better understanding of the message. That is especially true in our Gospel reading for today.
Matthew wrote his Gospel for a Jewish audience and presented Jesus as the new Moses. His is the only Gospel to relate how Jesus barely escaped death as an infant and was exiled in Egypt just as Moses had experienced. Today’s Gospel is an extract from the Sermon on the Mount and is reminiscent of Mount. Sinai where Moses taught the Ten Commandments. Throughout the entire sermon on the mount, Jesus stated repeatedly, “Moses said such and such but I say this.” The propensity of Jesus to enhance the importance and meaning of texts from Hebrew Scriptures is in play again in today’s Gospel. In our first reading, Isaiah said that when you do good works, your light will break forth like the dawn and your wound will be quickly healed. Jesus added that to be a more powerful light in the world, you should first attend to the matter of being the salt of the earth.
Matthew’s audience would have known a lot about salt and its importance. In the early days of this common era, salt was a valuable commodity and in its purest form it was even used as currency. The word salary comes from salt, and some workers were “not worth their salt.” Refining salt was a difficult and costly process. Slag had to be boiled multiple times to remove impurities and, after much pummeling and a lengthy period of evaporation, a fine crust of salt crystals could be collected by an action of vigorous scraping. Salt is a very powerful agent for change. It can heal, purify and preserve and, although what has been salted can never be unsalted, salt can be diluted, and when it is, it is useless for any purpose other than surfacing roads. To be more powerful and effective salt, it is of utmost importance that all impurities be removed and that adequate measures be taken to stay undiluted. Paul apparently knew a lot about that process.
In our second reading, Paul tells the Corinthians that he has come to preach in “weakness, fear, and trembling and without using the persuasive words of human wisdom.” That certainly doesn’t sound like the Paul we first met before he was knocked off his horse. By this time he had learned humility. Several stories in the Acts of the Apostles back up the reality that nothing is more of a dead end in preaching than any kind of self-sufficiency or arrogance. Ego is of no help whatsoever, and working in the salt mines of the Paschal Mystery, which brings transformation through death and resurrection in an ongoing process of metanoia, is the only authentic school of discipleship.
As for verbal content, Paul declared that he had only one message to preach: Jesus Christ and him crucified. The following quote from Richard Rohr helps to shed some light on the meaning of this passage for me: “Jesus hides out with the crucified ones. He is found wherever pain is found. He is always loyal to human suffering more than to any group or religion. That is where we will meet him. He is found in what Mother Teresa called God’s most distressing disguise, and those whose hearts are open to human pain will see him everywhere. This is God’s hiding place, and only the humble will find him. “
Mother Teresa knew how to be a person of purer salt and stronger light, and she was a very healing presence wherever she went. On one occasion when she was working in a particularly difficult set of circumstances, someone remarked, “I wouldn’t do what you’re doing for all of the money in the world!” She looked at the person and said, “Neither would I!” She was very clear about what she was doing and why. She told us we need to love without getting tired.Like Mother Teresa we are all called to be persons of healing and light. Jesus tells us not to hide our light. We are to put it on a lampstand where it gives light to all in the house. Our light must shine before others so that they may see our good deeds and glorify God. It is the nature of light to grow stronger and warmer with togetherness, and we know this is true from our own experience of trying to live in community. I will close with some words from Mother Teresa about being salt and light: “Not all of us can do great things but we can all do small things with great love. We must pray and ask God for the courage to love. Always be kind and merciful. I’m a little pencil in the hand of God who is writing me as a love letter to the world. Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough. Give the world the best you have anyway. You see, it is between you and God. It never was between you and them anyway.”