On being salt of the earth; light to the world

The Ethics of Jesus recorded in his Sermon on the Mount does not begin with a condemnation of sin or a reminder of obligations, but with a blessing. In fact, an acceptable translation of “blessed” could be “congratulations,” or, “how fortunate you are!

How lucky we are if we have those attitudes of mercy, gentleness, a thirst for justice, which are the subject matter of the Beatitudes! And if that is not positive enough for us, then Jesus follows up with the loveliest compliments! “You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world!” Note, Jesus does not say “You must become …” No! You already are, for that is the natural state of a baptised follower of Jesus. You just have to act naturally, let it be!

Now, we could practically end the homily here, with a few trite words about giving good example to others, thus attracting those affected by our good deeds to God and guaranteeing our entry into heaven when we die. But much more can be said about how we can become salty and light bearers.

In particular, I suggest that we place the stress in our Christian morality on acting together as disciples, as a community, ultimately as Church. This is a corrective of the view that morality is essentially an individual matter, where we have a picture of a lone individual grappling with their conscience over what to do.

Think of a woman with an unwanted pregnancy considering an abortion, or a terminally ill man thinking of a trip to Switzerland to avail of euthanasia. A better image of moral discernment would be a multidisciplinary team working in a hospice; doctors, nurses, social workers, chaplains, coming together in a meeting to discuss how they can help dying patients to find dignity and peace in their final days.

Our Lord’s teaching, however, is addressed to a group in the first place rather than to the individual. The context of the Sermon has Jesus seeing the crowds but calling his disciples to him to receive this teaching. The Beatitudes are addressed to the ‘Poor in Spirit’ as a group, for “theirs” is the Kingdom of Heaven.

In today’s text the “you” being addressed is in the plural, surely, if it’s addressed to disciples.

Jesus expects his followers to act in unison to be salt to the earth and light to the world, sending his followers out two by two, insisting that “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I will be in their midst.” Think of the collective influence of the Holy Family, the family of John the Baptist and his parents, the family of Bethany (Lazarus, Martha, and Mary), the apostles fired up by the Spirit at Pentecost, Paul and Barnabas setting out on their missionary journey to Greek cities.

So today, we could think of the Christian groups who in their activities are salt and light – the caring people in the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul (SVP) or the Legion of Mary, or a local prayer group. Obviously, too, we have the religious orders of men and women. The Franciscans base their apostolate on life in fraternity. We go out as brothers to the world, not as loners!

Ideally, the family is the ordinary way a Christian can answer this call to be what nowadays we call an “influencer,” though sadly many families are not united in their faith, with a younger generation having difficulty with religious practice. Still, if the Lord speaks of even two or three gathered in his name as being the fundamental unit of evangelisation, then a committed married couple can do wonders, even though their children fall away.

But we must pray hard for more total family witness to the faith in what we call rightly “the domestic church.

In today’s teaching Jesus tells a little parable about a person lighting a lamp and then putting it on a lamp-stand with the intention of “giving light to those in the house.” Before we can give light to those in the outside world, the light of loving deeds needs to be shed on our own household, just as, before we can be salt to the earth, we need to pour it out on our own backyard!

Kieran Cronin ofm