Every three years, there’s a set rotation of the Sunday Scripture readings for the Catholic Mass. The three-year cycle is based on the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, with John’s gospel peppered throughout all three years.
This year we reset to Matthew’s gospel. After a year with Mark’s gospel and a year with Luke’s gospel, it’s refreshing to come back to Matthew. In particular, during Matthew’s year, we’re led through the famous Sermon on the Mount.
The sermon is one of five principal sermons contained in Matthew’s gospel. The five sermons are there as a symbolic representation of the Torah, the first five books of the Jewish Scriptures. The sermons are posed in this way in order to manifest Jesus as the new Moses, the new Law-Giver.
Last Sunday, due to our observance of the Presentation of the Lord, we missed the Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. It’s a great miss, especially since Pope Francis has just started a catechesis on the Beatitudes in the Wednesday audiences. No worries, though, we can collect the pope’s teachings and use them in another three years when Matthew comes back around again.
Without the Beatitudes this year, therefore, our first hearing of the Sermon on the Mount is this Sunday. It involves the Lord Jesus’ declaration that his disciples are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
Such an assertion would have seemed ridiculous at the time. Many of the Lord’s initial listeners would have been the lowest of the earth and people of no great influence or power.
How could the least of all people be the salt of the earth and the light of the world?
The question is blistering since salt and light, which are taken for granted in many developed countries today, were hard pressed to retain in the ancient world. Although salt and light were essential to people’s livelihood, they were not easy to get and they were even harder to keep.
Salt was a precious commodity in the ancient world. It’s said that Roman soldiers were even paid in salt. Salt was valued, not only because it made food taste better (and more easily digestible), but because salt preserved food. Salt allowed for food to be stored and provided a certain safety in securing it for a duration of time. The initial hearers of Jesus would have understood the high importance of salt.
After the natural light of the sun faded, man-made light was pivotal in completing other tasks and necessities of life. If a family didn’t have light, nothing else could be done. If they didn’t have a fire, they would have no heat. If this continued, the lack of light would lead to their demise and death. As with salt, the initial listeners of the Lord Jesus would have intimately understood the significance of light.
In employing salt and light as signs of the role and vocation of his followers in the midst of the world, the Lord Jesus was purposely using charged imagery. He was saying a lot about the power and expectations of his disciples.
Were the Lord’s expectations realistic?
Those who originally heard the teachings of the Lord Jesus, and especially those who sought to follow him, were originally from the lower classes. They were insignificant in the eyes of the world.
Facing such a reality, how could the Lord’s claims hold up to scrutiny?
By the measure of this world, the Lord was not being practical. There was no way that the last, lowest, and the least could shine as light or enrich as salt. But the Lord wasn’t using the standards of this world. Placed after the Beatitudes, with their focus on eternal life, the Lord was employing a divine measure. The light and salt of the earth would not be found among wealth and power. He has turned that fallen reality upside down.
The light and salt of the earth would now be found in the eternal measurements of vulnerability, empathy, meekness, aspirations for righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, the making of peace, and the willingness to suffer for what is true, right and good.
To the surprise of the mighty of the earth, the followers of the Lord Jesus surpass them in greatness. The upside-down state of affairs declared by Jesus Christ turns out to be the right-side-up of reality and the true means of human flourishing and human prosperity within society.
For those who are willing to follow this way of life, they will become a light to those who suffer and salt to those who are forgotten. In these ways, the Lord’s promise and commission to his disciples are fulfilled. They are truly the light of the world and the salt of the earth.
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