5th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A) – February 9, 2020
St. Margaret Mary – Wichita, KS
Isaiah 58:7-10; Psalm 112:4-9; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; Matthew 5:13-16
Salt & Light
Here in the beginning of Ordinary Time and all the way until Lent, our Gospel comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Today we get the part about being “salt” and “light” in this world. Last Sunday we had the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, and that superseded the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time and so we missed the first part of the sermon, the Beatitudes. But this call to be “salt” and “light” in the world doesn’t make much sense unless you know the Beatitudes. And we have all heard the Beatitudes before, but maybe we don’t really think about them as that controversial or radical. Maybe we don’t think that they are too special. But think: Jesus just starts saying, “Blessed…Blessed…Blessed…” Blessed are the poor in spirit; Blessed are those who mourn; Blessed are the meek; Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; Blessed are the merciful; Blessed are the pure in heart; Blessed are the peacemakers; Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. “Blessed…Blessed…Blessed…” The “Blessed” are those who live like this, who live according to God’s own heart—these “Beatitudes” are the attitudes of God’s heart. And so all these “Blessed” people, what do they do? Well, naturally, they enhance the earth and the flavor of the earth—they are salt; these people living the “blessed” life naturally make things a little less depressing, they bring hope—they are a light.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus gives us eight attitudes or states of life that the world scorns, and makes fun of, and rejects—eight attitudes and states of life that the world views as useless and even shameful: poor, mourning, meek, hungry, merciful, pure, peacemakers, persecuted. But these are the eight attitudes that Jesus consecrates to God’s service. “Blessed.” That word for “blessed” in the Greek, is a word that usually describes those in society that are rich, and have a good education, and a good job, and a good social status. The “blessed” are the people who have it all. The “blessed” are those that take care of themselves, they are not a burden on others, they are not soaking up social aid and are not asking for handouts from others. The “blessed” would be most of us here in this church.
But in Jesus’ eyes, we’re not “blessed,” at least, not for those reasons. The “Blessed” are the ones who live these eight attitudes, these states of life. Forget the rest of it! The people in this world who are “salt” and “light,” those people aren’t salt and light because they are wise according to the world’s standards, no. They are salt and light when they ditch the worldly standards and embrace these attitudes that come from the heart of Jesus—from the Sacred Heart.
Mercy, Not Sacrifice
The people who would have been the most upset about what Jesus was saying were the religious leaders, the people who were hyper-concerned with the religious practices, those who were concerned with “righteousness.” Why? Well, because this doesn’t seem to square with their version of religion. And we see this throughout the Gospel, right? The Pharisees and Sadducees and everyone else are constantly in conflict with Jesus. Jesus seems to be breaking with the religious tradition. But right after this passage from our Gospel today about salt and light, Jesus says this: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). Jesus is leading us into a deeper understanding, he is revealing and pointing-out all those things that we missed from the law and prophets.
For example, a little later in the Gospel, Jesus calls Matthew the tax collector, and then sits down to eat with him in his house with many other sinners and tax collectors. And the Pharisees are ticked! This great teacher should be concerned with the righteous, the people that have been working hard to follow the law, the people that follow all the rules—but instead he’s spending all of his time with people that are the worst, people that do not walk the path of “righteousness.” But then Jesus quotes the prophet Hosea and says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Jesus says, “Yeah yeah yeah, I get it, these people are not who you think I should spend my time with. But didn’t you listen to the prophets?” Jesus doesn’t abolish the law or the prophets, he fulfills: he finally puts into practice what the prophets encouraged the people to do, but they never did.
This whole argument with the Pharisees culminates in Matthew 25, when he talks about the Son of man judging the nations and separating the sheep from the goats. We all know it: “Whatever you did for the least of my brothers you did for me.” That is the criterion of judgement. And the “righteous” are not the ones that followed the rules and offered the right sacrifices and so on. No, the righteous were the ones who showed mercy: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me” (Matthew 25:35-36).
Again, worldly standards, the usual “religious” standards—those aren’t what we’re looking for. Jesus wants us to live with the attitudes and practices of his own Sacred Heart—merciful love. He wants us to live that love with which God loves us, the love that brought God out of heaven and down to earth, a love that doesn’t keep us at arms length from one another. Jesus didn’t flip a coin to the poor, Jesus became poor; Jesus didn’t feel bad about the suffering of others, he entered into that suffering.
Not With Sublimity of Words or Human Wisdom
This first reading from Isaiah…I mean, each and every one of us (me first of all!) need to sit down and pray with this chapter from Isaiah for a long time this week, every day. Chapter 58 from Isaiah. Isaiah just goes after those “religious” people who think that all they need to do is follow the rules for fasting and righteousness. Isaiah begins by saying, “These people seek me every day, they want to know my ways, they delight in knowing my ways, as if they were a nation that lived righteously and didn’t forsake my laws” (c.f., Isaiah 58:2). Isaiah is saying that these are people that show up looking to know God, that delight in knowing him—but that are not really righteous, they are missing something. And then Isaiah points out what it is: these people think that if they follow some rules and religious practices, God will give them what they want. “We fasted! We humbled ourselves! Why don’t you seem to notice, Lord?” (c.f., Isaiah 58:3a) The people say, “We did all the right things, Lord. What’s the hold-up?” And then Isaiah speaks the mind of God and points out the problem: “Well, because when you fast you are pursuing your own business, and you also oppress your workers. And you fast, but you are fighting and abusing workers, those under you. And your fast! It’s just you bowing your head and acting sad, sackcloth and ashes as a show. Do you think this is the fast that is acceptable? Do you really think this is what God wants?” (c.f., Isaiah 58:3b-5).
And then Isaiah points out the divine mind, the divine heart—Isaiah gives a prophetic declaration of the heart of God, something that Jesus will come and declare centuries later. Isaiah gives us an insight into the Sacred Heart: “Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose: share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own [brothers and sisters].…lavish your food on the hungry, satisfy the afflicted” (c.f., Isaiah 58:7-10). Acts of mercy! These are what God desires; mercy, not sacrifice. And what happens? “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn.…Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer.…Then your light shall rise in the darkness” (Isaiah 58:8-10).
The prophets were saying all of this before Jesus showed up! The Pharisees were too busy trying to codify the mind and the heart of God, trying to limit Him. Religious people were too busy looking for some magic formula of prayers and devotions and novenas and commandments and laws that would fix everything. But, I mean, a dog in its kennel follows the Ten Commandments. But mercy? To live according to the very heart and mind of God? That’s only something humans have been given the gift to be able to do. But it’s not how the world thinks; the “blessed” according to the world’s standards are not going to cut it.
Through the Cross
Once again, the worldly standards of “blessedness” are not helpful, in fact, they can be downright unhelpful or dangerous. Jesus does not propose a way of life that is comfortable and safe and secure. No, he is pretty radical. “Do you want to follow me? Great, go sell everything that you have and give it to the poor and then come, follow me.” Jesus stops people and says, “If you want to follow me, great, but you are going to have to pick up your cross and follow me.” St. Paul in the second reading today says, “I didn’t preach with fancy words, or great wisdom, no. I came in fear and trembling. And I just preached Christ, and I preached the crucified Christ” (c.f., 1 Corinthians 2:1-4). The most divine road is the cross, it is the path of love, of merciful love. We are pretty good at sacrifice. But what about mercy? Go spend an hour with Isaiah 58.
We can tell one another that we’re good people, we can tell ourselves, “I’m a good person.” We can make ourselves feel better by saying, “I go to church, I pray, I don’t commit terrible sins.” But remember, even your dog can follow the Ten Commandments.
But only we can pick up the cross and follow Jesus. Only we can love with the very love of God. Only we can live a truly “Blessed” life. Only we can live a life of mercy.
And only we can be salt and light in the world.