Year A: Fifth Sunday Ordinary Time

The Similes of Salt and Light

Matthew 5:13-16

“You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lamp stand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.

Discussion Questions:

  1. “You are the salt of the earth”. In other words, you are something you may not realize, a gift that may not be developed, a potential that may not be realized. How are you feeding your ultimate passions and purpose?
  2. How is it possible to let your good works shine before others with out seeming to draw attention to yourself rather than to God?
  3. Where do you draw your energy or “zest” for life from, and how do you use it to express your faith?
  4. How do you go about recognizing invitations to be, “salt and light” for others? How do you feel that you are awake to the faith-opportunities around you?
  5. In what ways do you experiment with your faith? Where can you stretch a bit beyond your comfort zone to be more “salt and light”?

Biblical Context

Matthew 5:13-16
Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ

As we continue through the Sermon on the Mount, we must remember that although many see Jesus here as the new Moses, he is not acting as a law-giver, but rather a dispenser of wisdom. The Beatitudes were conundrums, counterintuitive sayings that make sense only when we reflect on them from practice. In addition, although the entire sermon is generally thought to be a collection of teachings rather than a homily delivered all at one time, Matthew framed it as a discourse and therefore wanted his readers to take it as such. With that in mind we need to remember that Jesus addressed the statements about salt and light to you, meaning those disciples to whom he had previously just stated “blessed are those who are persecuted.”

Jesus was a great one for playing with words, and he did so in the saying about salt. Salt, in addition to its attributes as a flavor enhancer and food preservative, was a common metaphor for wisdom. So, the word Jesus used for the idea of salt losing its flavor was one which could connote foolishness. That concept makes for a great addition to what Paul had to say about human wisdom and the power of God. Following up on the last phrase of the beatitudes, Jesus indicates that persecuted disciples who are blessed and possess the kingdom of heaven are the salty wise ones. But if they lose that saltiness, their wisdom truly becomes folly, not only for them, but in the sight of the world that laughs because they gave up on what they had begun.

The second pair of images, the light and shining city on the hilltop is even more powerful when understood in a biblical context. Light was a common symbol for God’s word: “Your word is a lamp to my feet, a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105); and even for God: “The Lord is my light and my salvation” (Psalm 27:1). The city on the hilltop was Jerusalem, the dwelling place of God (Micah 4:1-3). With these images Jesus teaches that the persecuted and blessed disciples are an extension of God’s very presence in the world, a presence that can never be hidden or snuffed out.

Becoming Salt

John Shea

When I heard that this pastor died, I said aloud to myself “The world is now a less interesting place.”

I did not say the world was less just or good or merciful. This would be a more edifying remark. But from my limited perspective this man was an endless experiment. He was a shot of zest, salting every bland situation.

The parish decided to put up a basketball court in the parking lot. Everyone agreed it would be a good thing and give the teenagers a place to play and congregate. The pastor suggested they put three basketballs in a net and tie the net around the base of the stand that supported the backboard and basket. This way if people were just wandering by and wanted to shoot a few baskets, a ball would be available.

The parish council said that was ill advised. The kids would steal the balls. They wouldn’t last a day.

The pastor said he had thought about that and had a solution. He was not going to buy three cheap basketballs. He was going to buy three expensive basketballs. When people saw that these were top-of-the-line balls, they wouldn’t take them.

Needless to say, the parish council didn’t buy this reasoning. But this was a Catholic parish and the pastor does what the pastor wants. Three expensive basketballs were placed in the net.

The first one disappeared in a week. The second one was gone in a month. But it was five months before the third one vanished. The parish council admitted the balls lasted longer than they thought. But still they gloated, men and women of the world teaching the idealistic pastor a thing or two.

The pastor brought three new expensive basketballs. He stated his principle clearly, “Good basketballs for good people.”

Something is lost when the spiritual identity of “salt” and “light” is translated into the activity of doing good works. We often harbor a pedestrian notion of goodness. Doing “good” is a wooden application of principle to unruly situations. We seldom think of it as entailing creative engagement with the wily world. Yet the people or salt are called upon to envision and execute experiments. When the experiments fail, it is not time to retreat to old ways but to try new experiments. “Good basketballs for good people.’

When we realize our identities as salt and light, we begin to have faith in the world as a corollary of faith in God. God’s energies are directed to the betterment of the world. So, God’s people are driven by the same purpose. The world for all its recalcitrance is in the process of becoming the good creation. We are the flavor and fire of this development. Think big. Think new. Think creative.

Teilhard de Chardin, mystic and scientist, was afraid people would lose their zest and passion for the development of the world. So he tried to uncover this zest and passion as the deep desire of their hearts. He wrote that the “only worthwhile joy is that of co-operating as one individual atom in the final establishment of a world.” When his friends said they did not feel this drive in them, he said to them, “You are not searching to the full depth of your heart and mind. And that, moreover, is why the cosmic sense and faith in the world is dormant in you.” Jesus’ words that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world are meant to awaken our cosmic sense and our faith in the world. The awakened sense unfolds into experiments on every level, even with basketballs.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.