5th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (Cycle A)

Readings:
Isaiah 58:7-10
Psalm 112:4-8a, 9
1 Corinthians 2:1-5
Matthew 5:13-16

Abbreviations: NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

The two Testaments reveal God's divine plan for humanity, and that is why we read and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095).

The Theme of this Sunday's Readings: Christians Living in the Image of Christ bring Light to the World
The mission of the covenant people of God, in both the Old and New Covenants, is to be a "light" of hope to the world (First Reading). The prophet Isaiah reminds the covenant people of their obligation under the Law of the Sinai Covenant to give hope to the poor and oppressed by being responsible for their needs. It was God's command that there be no poor among the covenant people and that everyone, even strangers, must be treated justly (Ex 23:6-11; Lev 9:10, 18; 23:22; 25:35; Dt 15:4-11). The reward for such obedience is God's promise of blessings in that righteous person's time of need.

The Responsorial Psalm echoes the theme of the First Reading. The psalmist extols the fortunate life of the just person where God shines like a light dispersing the darkness of sin. The just person demonstrates the attributes of God which are graciousness, mercy, and justice. And, because the just person gives alms to the poor, God pardon him and others will honor his good works. Finally, the psalmist proclaims that such a person has nothing to fear, and God will exult him.

In the Second Reading, St. Paul tells the Christians of Corinth that he puts no reliance on carefully argued speeches or human wisdom. He came to proclaim Christ simply guided by the Holy Spirit. Just as St. Paul's preaching to the Corinthians did not rely on worldly eloquence, our faith must not be based on human wisdom. Paul says he based his message on a demonstration of Spirit and power, referring to the action of the divine grace of God the Holy Spirit on those who listened to Paul's message with an open heart. Paul claims that it is the power of God that brought the Corinthian Christians to believe in Jesus Christ.

Our Gospel Reading is from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in which He uses the metaphors of salt and light. If the Beatitudes from the first part of His sermon in Matthew 5:2-12 outline the steps to achieve spiritual perfection, then the salt and light metaphors begin the teaching on the application of that perfection. Our passage focuses on two opposing forces: the righteous believer/the Church versus the unrighteous non-believers/the world. Jesus commands that Christians have the courage to live the Beatitudes for the good of a world that stands in opposition to Christian values and beliefs.

The mission to bring the light of hope to the world continues for the covenant people of God from the old Sinai Covenant into the New Covenant Church. Christians must remain distinctively Christian in all aspects of life. If Christians become indistinguishable from non-Christians, then the Church has lost her distinctive call to lost souls to come out of the dark, sinful influences of the world and into the "light" of Christ. Christians must transform the world, but they must do this without the world leaving its mark on them. Preserving the uniquely Christian character of the Church, as passed down to us by Jesus Christ, is the call of Christian discipleship, responsibility, and the obedience of faith.

The First Reading Isaiah 58:7-10
7 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.  8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed; your vindication shall go before you, and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.  9 Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer, you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am.  10 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, and the gloom shall become for you like midday.

The prophet Isaiah reminds the covenant people of their obligation under the Law of the Sinai Covenant to be responsible for the poor and the oppressed.  It was God's command that there be no poor among the covenant people and that everyone, even strangers, must be treated justly (Ex 23:6-11; Lev 9:10, 18; 23:22; 25:35; Dt 15:4-11). God's promise for such obedience is His abundance of blessings in that righteous person's time of need.  The inspired writer of Sirach gave the same promise and wrote that one of those blessings is that almsgiving expiates sins (Sir 3:30-31/33-34).  The obligation to care for the needy and oppressed is based on the Ten Commandments. Those who belong to God are commanded to both love God and to love one's neighbor.  If we love God, we will obey Him, and if we love our neighbor we will share God's love with those in need of love and material comfort (Lev 19:18; Dt 6:5 and Mt 22:34-40).

Jesus gave the same teaching in Matthew 25:31-46 when He spoke of the promise of eternal life for those righteous who exercised acts of mercy but eternal judgment for those who do not.  Jesus listed six unfortunate conditions and six acts of compassion in response to those conditions:

  1. Hungry       -->  gave food
  2. Thirsty        -->  gave drink
  3. Stranger     -->  welcomed
  4. Naked        -->  clothed
  5. Ill                -->  cared for
  6. In prison     -->  visited

Jesus equates those acts of compassion for the unfortunate with acts of love extended to Him. To ignore acts of mercy is to withhold one's love from Him (verses 35-36 and 42-43).  Jesus' message concerning humanity's relationship with Him is this: If you truly love your Savior, you will express the love you have for Him by acts of compassion to those in need of love and compassion.

The Church lists the kind acts described in Matthew 25:35-36 among "the works of mercy" (CCC 2447).  The Church imitates Christ's love for the poor and oppressed as "part of her constant tradition" (CCC 2444).  St. John Chrysostom reminded his congregation that all the material blessings we enjoy are from God, and we should not look upon them as ours alone: "Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life.  The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs" (Homilies in Lazaro, 2.5).

Responsorial Psalm 112:4-8a, 9 ~ The Just Man and Woman
The response is: "The just man is a light in darkness to the upright," or "Alleluia."
4 Light shines through the darkness for the upright; he is gracious and merciful and just.  5 Well for the man who is gracious and lends, who conducts his affairs with justice.
6 He shall never be moved; the just man shall be in everlasting remembrance.  7 An evil report he shall not fear; his heart is firm, trusting in the LORD.
8a His heart is steadfast; he shall not fear.  9 Lavishly he gives to the poor; his justice shall endure forever; his horn shall be exalted in glory.

The psalmist extols the fortunate life of the just person.  In the life of a just person, God shines like a light dispersing darkness (verse 4a); "darkness" is always a metaphor for sin in Scripture.  The just person demonstrates the attributes of God (Ex 34:6) which are graciousness, mercy. and justice (verse 4).  Because the just person gives alms to the poor, he will be pardoned by God and honored by others (verses 5 and 9).  Our First Reading echoes this same teaching ( also see Prov 19:17; Tob 4:7-11; and Sir 3:30-31/33-34).   Finally, the psalmist proclaims that such a person has nothing to fear, and his "horn," a symbol of strength, will be exalted by God.

St. Paul quoted verse 9 from the LXX when he was raising alms for the poor Christians of the Jerusalem church.  He exhorted the Christian communities in Greece to be generous in providing aid to the poor Christians in Jerusalem: And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work.  As it is written, "He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever" (2 Cor 9:8-9).  Paul's exhortation is a good reminder for us when we have the opportunity to provide aid to the poor; it is acts of mercy that help to atone for our sins (Sir 3:30-31/33-34).  It is a win-win opportunity!

The Second Reading 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 ~ Not on Human Wisdom
1 When I came to you, brothers and sisters, proclaiming the mystery of God, I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom.  2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you, except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.  3 I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling, 4 and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of Spirit and power, 5 so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

St. Paul wrote his first letter to the Christians of Corinth, Greece from Ephesus in Asia Minor in about 54 AD.  In his first visit to Corinth, Paul had come from Athens, as we know from the account of his missionary work in Acts of Apostles (17:16-34).  Paul was dejected because his mission in Athens had produced so few converts despite his brilliant discourse to the pagan philosophers in the Areopagus.  Paul's perception of the failure of the Athens mission and the moral corruption of the Corinthian society may explain his arriving "in weakness and fear and much trembling" (verse 3). 

In the New Testament book Acts of the Apostles, we read the Lord Jesus came to comfort Paul in his distress and to encourage him, telling His apostle: Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you (Acts 18:9-10).  St. Paul, therefore, came to Corinth putting no reliance on carefully argued speeches and human wisdom.  He came to proclaim Christ simply guided by the Holy Spirit (verses 4-5).  Just as St. Paul's preaching to the Corinthians did not rely on worldly eloquence; exhortation is a good reminder for us when we have the opportunity to provide aid to the poor; it is acts of mercy that help to atone for our sins.  Paul says he based his message on a demonstration of Spirit and power (verse 4), which is probably a reference to the action of the divine grace of God the Holy Spirit on those who listened to Paul's message with an open heart.  It is the power of God that brought the Corinthian Christians to believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

In the Church today, God's grace continues to act through the power of the Spirit in the proclamation of the Gospel message of salvation in Christ Jesus.  Pope Paul VI wrote that the strength of the Gospel message is unique: "It cannot be replaced.  It does not permit either indifference, syncretism or accommodation.  It is a question of people's salvation.  It is the beauty of the Revelation that it represents.  It brings with it a wisdom that is not of this world.  It is able to stir up by itself faith, faith that rests on the power of God (cf. 1 Cor 2:5).  It is truth.  It merits having the apostle consecrate to it all his time and all his energies, and to sacrifice for it, if necessary, his own life" (Paul IV, Evangelii nuntiandi, 5).

The Gospel of Matthew 5:13-16 ~ Salt of the Earth and Light for the World
13 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.  14 You are the light of the world.  A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.  15 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.  16 Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly father.

Our Gospel readings continue with Jesus' Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew chapters 5-7.  If the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:2-12 outline the steps to achieve spiritual perfection, then the salt and light metaphors begin the teaching on the application of that perfection.  This passage focuses on two opposing forces: the righteous believer/the Church versus the unrighteous/the world.  Achieving spiritual perfection is a difficult assignment.  Jesus commands that Christians live the Beatitudes for the good of a world that stands in opposition to Christian values and beliefs.  He approaches this teaching by using two very useful and practical metaphors.  Every home in the first century, and every home today, rich and poor alike, has both salt to season food and give a more pleasing taste and light to illuminate the house at sundown. 

The Salt Metaphor: In addition to improving the flavor of foods, salt is also useful: 1. as a preservative, 2. to improve health, 3. as a purifier, and 4. to safeguard a slippery path.

  1. Preservative: In ancient times as in modern times, salt is used as a preservative.  In the days before refrigeration, salt was especially important; for example, salted fish was a staple of the Roman Empire. 
  2. Health: So much of our processed foods contain salt that we probably do not consider salt as necessary to good health, but the ancients certainly understood the benefits of adequate amounts of salt in a diet for the sake of one's health.
  3. Purifier: We also do not think of salt as a purifier but just drop a little salt on a wound, and you will understand the "purifying" effects of salt.  It is the salt in the oceans of the world that act as a natural cleaning agent, and most water purification systems use salt as a "purifier."
  4. Non-slippery agent: The ancients wouldn't have wasted salt on a slippery path.  As a commodity, it was too valuable to them to be wasted that way unless the salt had lost its flavor and was no longer salty.  That was something that could happen to Dead Sea salt that was full of impurities.  It wouldn't be the true salt that had lost flavor, sodium chloride is a very stable compound, but instead, it would be the impurities left in the container that had once held the salt crystals.  The powdery impurities would only be good to be thrown out and trampled underfoot on some road or dirty footpath.

Since Jesus is using salt as a metaphor for the Christian's positive influence, each of these uses of salt can be compared to the Christian's/Church's impact on the world and the condition of the world in general and the unrighteous in particular. 

The Christian and the Church versus the World in the Salt Metaphor
The World The Christian/the Church
1. The world is in a state of spiritual decay and has no "flavor" for holiness. Christian influence for righteousness preserves and encourages what is holy and good, saving the world through the "salt" of faith and righteousness and providing a moral standard based on a "taste" for the righteousness of Christ in the Eucharist.
2. The world promotes unhealthy behavior both physically and spiritually.  Sin is harmful to living creatures. In teaching the Law of God and the Gospel message of salvation, the Christian promotes temporal health for the body and spiritual health for the soul.
3. The world is a corrupting influence; the material and selfish values of the world are in complete opposition to the values of the Christian. The Christian example is one of purification of body, mind, and spirit in giving the self-sacrificial love of Jesus to each other and to the world in general.
4. The world is on the slippery slope to eternal judgment. The Christian example provides stability through the God-given institutions of marriage, family, and the Church.  It is the Church as our mother who teaches us the way to salvation and eternal life.  It is our obligation as Christians living in imitation of Christ to share this teaching with the world.
M. Hunt, copyright October 2005

The Light Metaphor:
Matthew 5:14-16 ~ The Christian as the light of the world.
14 You are the light of the world.  A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.  15 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.  16 Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly father.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus identifies Himself as the "Light" three times:

Note: In Scripture "darkness" is a metaphor for sin.

However, in Matthew 5:14, Jesus identifies the Christian as the "light of the world."  There is no contradiction.  The Christian does not generate his own "light;" it is Christ Himself who generates this supernatural, internal light of the Christian soul.  We reflect the burning love of Christ within us.  In John 12:36 Jesus tells the disciples "...believe in the light so that you may become children of the light."  Jesus Christ is "the light," and it is Christ who empowers us to be "children of the light."

Jesus defines Christian light in verse 16 of our Gospel reading.  The "light" of God's children is the good deeds of Christians; it is the work of Jesus Christ, "the Light," working through His children and illuminating them with His light.  The implied contrast between the Christian/the Church and the world is that the world is in darkness and the Church, through the Body of believers, provides the light of salvation to the world.  Jesus gives examples to express the metaphor of Christian light in positive and negative images:

Jesus is the Light of the world, and we are called to reflect His light so that we can live as "children of the light."  It is as St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians: For all of you are children of the light and children of the day.  We are not of the night or of darkness ... But since we are of the day, let us be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love and the helmet that is hope for salvation.  For God did not destine us for wrath, but to gain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live together with him.  Therefore, encourage one another and built one another up, as indeed you do (1 Thes 5:5-11).

The Christian and the Church versus the World in the Light Metaphor:
The World The Christian/the Church
The world is in darkness (a metaphor for sin). It is the Christian's duty to let the light that is Christ and the Gospel message of salvation shine through the actions of the Christian and Christian community to illuminate the earth as a beacon of truth and mercy.

But how does the Christian accomplish this mission living in a world of sin?  The Christian is "in the world," but the Christian must not be "of the world."  The faithful believer must remain apart from the world and in no way conform to or become contaminated by what is acceptable behavior in the world that is contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ or he/she will lose "flavor" and lose "light."  The Christian must remain distinctively Christian in all aspects of life.  If Christians become indistinguishable from non-Christians and the secular world, then the Church has lost her distinctive call to lost souls to come out of the dark, sinful influences of the world and into the "light" of Christ's love.  The Church should be an instrument that promotes "social justice," but social justice is only an outgrowth of the works of faith to which the Church is called.  The main focus of the message must always be evangelization and salvation through Jesus Christ. 

When a Christian or a faith community becomes influenced by the world, and the teachings of Christ become diluted, conforming to what the world supports in its changing values suited to the changing times (for example: abortion, birth control, same-sex marriages, divorce, etc.), then there is a price to be paid.  If a Christian becomes something contrary to what the Church and Sacred Scripture teach, what is the value of the Christian witness?  In that case, a Christian goes from "righteous disciple" to useless "road dirt;" as Jesus said, "no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot" (Mt 5:13).  We must transform the world without the world leaving its mark on us.  Preserving the uniquely Christian character of the Church as passed down to us by Jesus Christ is the call of Christian discipleship, responsibility, and obedience. 

If the Christian is the salt that preserves, purifies, and improves the world as well as the light that enlightens mankind, then those who are attached to the world destroy rather than purify, and they live in darkness, unlike the Christian who shares the light of Christ that illuminates the world.  Jesus tells us it is the New Covenant believer who will save the world through the preserving salt of faith and who will provide the internal light that guides hearts and souls out of the darkness of sin and despair and into the "Light" of Jesus Christ.  In our Christian mission (which is contrary to the teaching and wisdom of the world), we must be ever mindful of Jesus' warning to us as we struggle against worldly influence:  If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first.  If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you (Jn 15:18-19).

Catechism References:
Isaiah 58:7 (CCC 2447)
Matthew 5:13-16 (CCC 782, 2821)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2014; revised 2017