Homily: Salt, Light, City on a Hill

Image result for city set on a hill

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)
Isaiah 58:7-10
Psalm 112:4-5, 6-7, 8-9,
1 Corinthians 2:1-5
Matthew 5:13-16

Our beautiful Masses last weekend celebrated Candlemas, the mystery of the Presentation of the infant Jesus into the covenant people of Israel, and Jesus being recognized by Simeon as the light of the world, and the glory of God’s people. In our gospel reading today, Jesus tells his disciples, “YOU are the light of the world.” So, let’s reflect a bit on that.

Jesus uses these three images today: You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. You are a city set on a mountain (or hill, depending on your translation). These are really three temple images.

Jesus says you are the salt of the earth. When God establishes the right and holy worship for Israel in the giving of the Law in the Old Testament books the law and the prophets, there are many mentions of salt in the context of offering sacrifice and celebrating the liturgy. Salt was an ancient symbol of purity, of preservation, and of flavoring, even before and outside ancient Israel. Salt was not only required for the worthy offering of the temple sacrifice, but the law calls the salted sacrifices a “covenant of salt to last forever before the LORD, for you and for your descendants with you” (Num 18:19). The commentary on that verse says, “The reference may perhaps be to the preservative power of salt, but more likely the phrase refers to the custom of [partaking of] salt together to render a contract unbreakable… as an ancient symbol of friendship and alliance.” So, we’ll leave that for a moment, and go to the next image.

Jesus says you are the light of the world. Again, to connect it to the temple, the Jews believed that in the end times the Temple would be the source of eternal light for the people of Israel. The Jewish festival of tabernacles gave a taste of that promise in its celebration as the temple courts were brightly lit 24-hours a day by huge menorahs that had to be lit by men on ladders. This sight is described by Jewish historians, probably a little exaggerated, as “no shadow being in Jerusalem” during these ancient celebrations. Also it is interesting that it was at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles that Jesus says to his disciples about himself, “I am the light of the world.”

And thirdly, a city set on a hill. The most famous city on a hill in Israel was of course Jerusalem. And the highest point of Jerusalem was Mount Zion, and the highest point of Mount Zion was the monumental structure of the Temple. The scriptures are full of images of all the nations, all the kings and people would someday be in a steady stream up toward Jerusalem with their gifts and offerings to joyfully worship the one true God, whose temple was in Jerusalem, and all the world would be part of God’s covenant, and follow the wisdom and truth of the Torah, the law and “instruction,” for the flourishing of humanity and all of creation. 

So, scripturally, these are some of the connections that Jesus made in this short reading, and the connections that his first-century Jewish listeners would have made as they listened to him speaking. So, what does this have to do with us?

Our other readings connect to our gospel with the same image that follows from last week’s gospel and our celebration of Candlemas: that Jesus is the light of the world. But flipping that around, Jesus calls us the light of the world. It’s not that we are the source of our own light, but we shine with his light, in our own individual way of making his light shine out through us.

Perfect example, our first reading from Isaiah. Israel had returned from the Babylonian exile, and were rebuilding their society, but things were not going as well as they had envisioned. Their society was not flourishing. And Isaiah points out that their society is suffering because the poor and vulnerable are suffering. He admonishes them: “Thus says the LORD: 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. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed… Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer, you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am! … If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness…”  Isaiah is not just pointing out the way of personal flourishing, but communal, societal flourishing: how to be citizens of the City of God.

Our psalm develops the same message: “The just man is a light in darkness to the upright. Well for the man who is gracious and lends, who conducts his affairs with justice.  An evil report he shall not fear; his heart is firm, trusting in the LORD. His heart is steadfast…” This isn’t about boasting of our uprightness, doing it for show and praise. Jesus warns against that just a little bit later, and that’s our reading for Ash Wednesday. It’s to be gracious. Humble. As the Amish say, “We believe in letting our light shine, but not shining it in the eyes of other people.” Be a solid, noble, joyful example of the well-ordered life of grace. That’s the example of Jesus, his light that he gave his disciples. And it’s the life he gives to us… his life in us that we receive in the sacrament of Baptism, and his life that we receive in his example, as he lived out his divine nature as the word of God in the flesh. Everything Jesus did was both for God and for others, at the same time. That by his words and actions, God would be glorified. “Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.

Remembering these are Temple images, salt, light, and the city on a hill, we might be tempted to ask, if each one of us is a temple, each having within us the presence of God, why do we need to go to church? Yes, it’s true that St. Paul says each of us is a temple of God’s presence. But we are at the same time living stones of the temple, in a different, more magnificent way. When I taught marching band at Lebanon Catholic, especially over the pre-season summer rehearsals, I sometimes had to chastise the kids for wasting rehearsal time because they hadn’t learned their music. And then we would have to go through their individual part, as we worked through it while everyone else was waiting. I told them, you practice at home, you rehearse here. At home you practice: you do the hard work of learning your part, so each of us can play our individual parts. Then we come together at rehearsal, and learn how to play our parts together, as one ensemble, one multi-voice musical unity. The same is true here. We are temples of God’s presence individually, in our personal prayer and devotions, in our personal life of faith. But then we’re also called by God to assemble as living stones of a still greater temple, where God receives the right and holy worship and sacrifice from his holy people, the Lamb of God, the perfect sacrifice of the temple. 

Using the word “new” in the sense of “the New Testament fulfillment of the Old Testament image/type (i.e., scriptural typology),” we can rephrase the above by saying the “new” Israel (the Church) gathers in the “new” temple (the mystical body of Christ) to offer the “new” sacrifice (the paschal mystery of Christ) in the “new” temple sacrificial liturgy (the Mass). 

A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. It’s up there, obviously visible, for everyone to see what it is. It isn’t nestled down in a valley where it might go unnoticed and hidden from those who might want to attack it. So it needs to rely on good defenses, because sooner or later it certainly will be attacked (as Jerusalem was, repeatedly, and often successfully defended). As Christians, we need to simply be what we are, up there on full display, for the world to see. We’re not meant to be hidden. And from time to time we’ll certainly be attacked. But our defense does not come from ourselves, but from the truth within us. As our first reading says, your vindication shall go before you, and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.” Our good character, our holiness from God, will guide us. And the LORD will be near to defend us and uphold us, in our encounters with the world. He will defend us (as our rear guard) against unknown attacks. 

To be the salt of the earth, as Jesus tells us we are, we are to continue his earthly mission of purifying the world, preserving the world from rotting and being ruined. In the words of Blessed Titus Brandsma, a Carmelite priest who died in a Nazi concentration camp, “Those who desire to win the world for Christ must have the courage to come into conflict with it.” Or as G. K. Chesterton put it: “Salt seasons and preserves beef, not because it is like beef; but because it is very unlike it. Christ did not tell his apostles that they were…the excellent people, but that they were the exceptional people; the permanently incongruous and incompatible people… It is because they are the exceptional people, that they must not lose their exceptional quality. ‘If salt lose its flavor, with what shall it be salted?’

We’ll end with this little reflection. Sodium is an extremely active element found naturally only in combined form; it always links itself to another element. Chlorine, on the other hand, is the poisonous gas that gives bleach its strong offensive odor. When sodium and chlorine are combined, the result is sodium chloride–salt–the substance we use to preserve meat and bring out its flavor. Love and truth can be like sodium and chlorine. Love without truth is flighty, sometimes blind, willing to combine with various doctrines. On the other hand, truth by itself can be offensive, sometimes even poisonous. Spoken without love, it can turn people away from the Gospel. When truth and love are united together in an individual or a parish family, however, then we have what Jesus called “the salt of the earth.” We witness to God’s truth, always in love, and to God’s love, always in truth, individually, and as the church. And by that, we are His light in the world, that they may see our good deeds, and glorify our heavenly Father.

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