It’s significant that today’s gospel pericope comes immediately after last week’s passage on the beatitudes. Both comprise Matthew’s introduction to his well-known, but rarely-practiced Sermon on the Mount. Before Matthew’s Jesus lays down the law, the evangelist wants his readers to appreciate their uniqueness.
Most people balk at giving themselves unselfishly to those around them, especially to those who don’t deserve such generosity. Only special people will commit themselves to this special behavior. That’s why Jesus reminds his followers of their unique dignity.
“You are the salt of the earth . . . the light of the world.” No one could be more complimentary. Yet there’s a catch. The compliment comes with a warning. “But what if salt goes flat?... People do not light a lamp then put it under a bushel basket.” In each case, the good which salt and light offer to others can be dead-ended. Salt can become insipid; a light can be hidden. Jesus expects his salt and light-giving followers to continue in their commitment to his ministry.
Of course, to understand that ministry, one must continue reading the Sermon on the Mount. As we’ll see in the next weeks, Jesus is quite demanding. In some sense, he wants his followers to go back to the morality preached by biblical prophets such as Third-Isaiah.
Though this immediate post-exilic prophet is focused on getting the once-exiled Israelites to leave the security of Babylon and commit themselves to rebuilding Jerusalem and its temple, he still feels it necessary to remind his audience of their basic covenant obligations to others, whether in Babylon or in Jerusalem.
“Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn you back on your own.” Then, using the same metaphor Jesus would employ 500 years later, Third-Isaiah promises, “Your light shall break forth like the dawn. .. If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusations and malicious speech; if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light will rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday.”
In other words, by becoming a generous light shining in a selfish, dark world, you’ll receive the life-giving light which Yahweh offers. Both Third-Isaiah and Jesus are centered on the same behavior; a behavior which demands constant dying and rising.
That’s why Paul puts today’s second reading at the beginning of his first letter to the Corinthian church. One of the reasons he writes this particular letter is because many in that community had developed a Christianity in which people expected to receive the life of Jesus without suffering the death of Jesus. The itinerant preacher from Capernaum never proclaimed such a message. “I determined,” the Apostle writes,” that while I was with you I would speak of nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
He acknowledges that his “crucifying” message wasn’t received with open arms by everyone. Yet it didn’t alter the way he presented the faith. “When I came among you it was in weakness and fear, and with much trepidation. My message and my preaching had none of the persuasive force of wise argumentation, but the convincing power of the Spirit.” Paul’s demand that the Corinthians imitate Jesus’ total self-giving made no sense to the majority of people. Only those who dared give themselves over to Jesus’ Spirit at work in them could see the light in the midst of their dying, and become a light for others.
It takes only a little salt to give taste to food. It takes only a few, committed individuals to change the direction of our planet. But, of course, if those few don’t realize their importance, nothing will ever change.