FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB link to all three readings
Jesus said to his disciples:
"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 lampstand,
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."
It is helpful to remember that next Sunday’s text follows the beatitudes immediately, specifically the statement that those will be blessed for the persecution they suffer in their fidelity to the ethic of the kingdom of God. So, the “salt of the earth” phrase in the first verse is not an isolated fragment of pithy exhortation. It is more like “you know, there are pains and punishments to embracing the kingdom of God. You can lose your family, your business, your holdings; you can be hailed to court, tortured, and even put to death for the sake of the Kingdom. But even with that great risk, “you are [must be] the salt of the earth.” On a lighter note, we can cite the wisdom of Mark Twain, “Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.”
Sunday’s text is a continuation of Jesus’ private instruction to his intimate followers. It is a series of metaphors of distinction, as indeed the followers of Jesus do stand out to the world. R.T. France, our house commentator (see home page), notes that the second person pronoun “you” in this text is consistently plural, not simply because there is more than one Apostle, but to convey a “corporate witness” of goodness. (p. 171) Given that this Gospel was written a half-century or more after the life of Jesus, it would be hard to imagine that Matthew did not have his own “corporation” in mind, his church. Certainly, Catholicism embraced this interpretation for many centuries from ancient times, going as far as to call his work “the Gospel of the church.”
France calls special attention to the sentence “A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.” The collective nature of the kingdom of God is particularly highlighted here; France uses the phrase “alternative society.” With some humor, he elaborates that “Modern Western individualism is such that we can easily think of the light of the world as a variety of little candles shining, ‘you in your small corner, and I in mine,’ but it is the collective light of the whole community which draws the attention of the watching world.” [I do not know if France attended the 1969 Woodstock Festival where singer Melanie called upon 600,000 people to hold up candles or bic lighters in a driving rainstorm; at least she knew her St. Matthew.]
The various metaphors in Sunday’s Gospel are meaningful only to the measure of their utility. Salt is useful and distinctive to the degree that it remains salty. Once it goes bad it is useless. An abandoned city on a hill with no inhabitants to build fires has no visual impact. Similarly, a lighted lamp under a bushel basket is useless—though possibly a little dangerous. France explains that the word “tasteless” in reference to the salt also means “foolish,” a double entendre that gets lost in the translation. The parallel throughout the text is usefulness vs. foolishness (as in hiding the lamp) and clearly carries connotations of personal judgments about conduct.
There are two levels of interpretation to consider here: the first, what Jesus himself intended as understood by Matthew; the second, what Matthew understood as the implications of this teachings for his church community years later. It is very hard to say if Jesus in his lifetime thought “corporately.” If he did, he probably envisioned a New Israel with the twelve as the fathers of the restored people. All the Gospels agree that Jesus died as a practicing Jew. My thought here is that early in his ministry, so closely associated with John the Baptist and conversion through baptism, Jesus envisioned his early followers as making their lights shine by unexpected good conduct. St. Luke, who gives us perhaps the best portrait of the Baptist, describes John’s (and probably Jesus’ early preaching as well) as a study of contrasts. The Roman soldier is to quit “shakedowns” and be satisfied with his pay. The tax collector must stop exorbitant charges. An honest tax collector? An oxymoron! This was news. Strong salt and bright light in the circles of the Baptist and Jesus.
Given the fact that so many years of church life passed between the events as narrated and the audience that heard or read them, Church scholars today labor to understand how Matthew would have applied Sunday’s text to the church in his region around 80 A.D. By this time, Christianity had a young but recognizable corporate culture of local churches connected by emerging leaders and the letters and other literature that one day would be known as the New Testament. Most of all, the churches came together for common purpose, to “break bread” or participate in the sacred meal of the memorialized. Sunday’s Gospel opens the door to a thoughtful blueprint of what the corporate city on the hill must look like.
According to the Jerome Biblical Commentary (pp. 632ff) the local church in Matthew’s day had been a strongly Jewish/Christian assembly which was now dividing along traditional lines. Jewish authorities began expelling its members who embraced Christianity in a kind of dual-identity. Defections from Christianity were becoming common, and Matthew hastened to develop the argument that Jesus was indeed the New Moses—with the New Law—and thus there was no need to abandon Christians or to return to a safer haven, religiously speaking.
Matthew, then, will speak with a much more corporate tongue. In fact, it may have been the fracturing of the assembly that led him to decry salt without flavor, or lamps with no lights. He correctly perceived that the warring Christian-Jewish segments had lost distinctiveness and resembled every other early institution divided by doctrine, philosophy, or personality. The JBC comments that Matthew’s Gospel will offer many moral teachings to reestablish the distinctive qualities of the new kingdom, including directives regarding authority and conflict resolution in Chapter 16.
Sunday’s Gospel sets the table for the common life of faith and charity that makes the Church salty, and not foolish.