By the Rev Msgr Harry Entwistle
Sunday 5 February, 2017
St Ninians & St Chads Church, Maylands
Darkness is the absence of light, and when the lighted paschal candle dispels the darkness in the church building at the Easter Vigil mass, it is less important whether the faithful shout, “Thanks be to God” in response to the priest’s announcing the “Light of Christ,” than if they live as people who radiate that light through their lives.
Isaiah made the same point to his own people who were complaining that God was not rewarding them for their piety and observance of the Jewish Law. Isaiah pointed out to them that their religious observances and fasting was an empty vessel. They performed the rituals religiously, but doing so made no difference to how they lived. Words and good intentions come cheaply. It is putting them into action that is costly.
The problem with Isaiah’s people was that their motivation was wrong. They appeared to be pious but their piety was focused on themselves, so their motivation was to serve themselves rather than on God’s justice and mercy. They kept the fasts, but still kept running their businesses and oppressing their workers. They offered the sacrifices, but had no mercy for the poor and needy. They praised God, but denied justice to the poor. This is the challenge to which Pope Francis draws our attention.
St Paul faced the same issue in Corinth and he had to tell the Christians in that city that no matter how clever or wise they thought they were, God is wiser. Because the Church is a community of the faithful, St Paul reminded them that self-praise is no recommendation that they are actually in a good relationship with God.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus uses three images to illustrate what discipleship should be like if we are to bring others closer to God. These images are those of salt, light and a city built on a hilltop.
Disciples of Jesus are to be reflections of God’s light in the world. At times, this may mean being like a searchlight, identifying evil or searching for the lost. At other times, it may mean being a lighthouse, guiding people through difficult situations in their lives so that they can reach a resolution or find safety and security in Jesus and his Church. Or it may means being like a beacon, scattering the darkness and drawing people to God’s love, which is the source of the true light. If disciples are not people of the light, the world will live in darkness.
Jesus says that the Church, through its lay and ordained disciples is called to be the city of a mountaintop, that like the beacon, draws all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, to itself so that they can learn who God is and form a relationship with him. Isaiah told his people that this was their mission to the Gentile world, but they failed. It was Jesus who took that mission upon himself and once he achieved it handed it on to his followers.
Then he presented the image of salt. Salt is used for seasoning and preserving foodstuffs. It is also necessary for our bodies, and in the time of Jesus it was a valuable commodity. Roman soldiers were often paid with salt. We have the saying about a ‘man being worth his salt.’ People are still worth their salt because the Latin word for salt is ‘salarium’ from which our word ‘salary’ is derived.
However, in the Old Testament salt was used when agreements or covenants were entered into. Salt was a symbol of the permanence of the covenant, and Jesus’ saying asks what happens to the covenant if salt becomes useless.
He gives the answer and this is, “You are the salt of the earth.” The Church, through its disciples, is the visible sign of God’s covenant of love for his people, sealed with the blood of his crucified Son.
As the covenant was achieved through the suffering of Jesus, all those who are bound by this covenant as disciples, may also have to suffer in some way or other for the Gospel.
The vocation of the laity in the Church is not primarily that of assisting in running the parish or assisting in its liturgical life, although these things are important. The primary ministry of the laity is to be in the world engaging with it by leading lives that will draw others to glorify the Father so that the light that dawned in Galilee will spread and scatter the world’s darkness. It is not what disciples say so much as whether our lives reflect the Gospel, that will measure the effectiveness of our mission.