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3rd Sunday before Lent

30 January 2020

Isaiah 58.1-9a; Psalm 112; 1 Corinthians 2.1-end; Matthew 5.13-20

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THE Greek word in our Gospel for “losing saltiness” literally means “to become foolish”. As Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis explains, “a thing is wisest when it is most fully itself, when it tastes most like itself, in keeping with its nature. It is ‘foolish’ when it forgets to be what it is, when it no longer has its proper flavour” (Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel according to St Matthew). Salt enables all that is around it to become more fully and intensely what it was created to be. When Christians are truly themselves, they can help the world remember and grow into its true identity — as something called into being by and for the love of God.

While the Church is called to love the world, she has nothing to offer it other than the life of her Lord. When Christians become worldly, losing their saltiness, they paradoxically betray the world. The Church’s “most credible form of witness, and the most effective thing it can do for the outside world, is the actual creation of a living, breathing, visible community of faith” (Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens). For, as the Body of Christ, she is the first-fruits of the new Creation in which he shall be “all in all” (Colossians 3.11).

In our first reading, the Lord condemns his people for forgetting and forsaking their calling. The passage ends with a promise of cosmic restoration — of waters springing up in “parched places” and “ancient ruins” being rebuilt — if God’s people remember and follow their vocation. It is when they feed the hungry, when they welcome the homeless poor into their houses, that his “light shall break forth” and “the glory of the Lord” shall be their “rearguard”.

Jesus tells his disciples that they are “the light of the world”. It is not a statement about what the Church should be, but rather about what it must be. In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words, “any community of Jesus which wants to be invisible is no longer a community that follows him” (Discipleship).

The Church, Jesus tells us, is like a “city built on a hill”, drawing all peoples to its light. Yet disciples are also to be like a “portable lamp”. Levia-Merikakis explains that lychnos (the Greek word in verse 15) refers to a light that is carried around by its owner. Disciples are to be “moved about by Christ as he sees fit”.

Jesus commands his disciples to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” His followers are to be a community of faithful witness, with a righteousness that “exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees”. There is a spiritual danger here. As St Teresa of Ávila warns, it is possible to become focused on manifesting “the appearance of virtue” because we want our goodness to be noticed, and not because the glory will be given to God.

From the outside, it can be hard to distinguish between someone whose good deeds are done from a love of praise, and someone whose unselfconscious goodness is offered solely to glorify the Father. From the inside, however, the two states are very different: if we are truly acting in ways that transmit the light of the Father, it will be a matter of indifference to us whether our part in this transmission is evident to others.

In our epistle, Paul challenges readers who, while professing faith in Christ, still cling to the values of the world — in particular, its demand for glory and status. As he reminds them, Paul, when he came to Corinth, had vowed to “know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified”. His proclamation was made in outward weakness so that the glory should go to the Father, not to him.

Paul contrasts such reliance on the Spirit’s power with the “wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age”. As St Thomas Aquinas explains, it is by the wisdom of this world that we are “impelled to do the things of this world”. Worldly wisdom turns our hearts inwards, focusing on the pursuit of selfish interests and the promotion of individual status. In contrast, the wisdom of the Cross always turns outwards, pouring new life on the “parched places” and “ruins” of a broken world.

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