Matthew 5:13-16, Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
There is a scene in the biopic, Jackie, which I have been thinking about a lot since I last saw it. Jackie is desolate and disorientated after the assassination of JFK, and she speaks with a priest about the memories of her marriage. She speaks of the charisma of her husband, his loyalty to ideals and friends, his great love for his children, but in the same breath, she speaks of the great pain that he brought her because of his infidelity. Her priest, who I think says the most banal of things in the film, tells her to take courage in the happier moments. Jackie replies, ‘I can’t—they’re mixed up in all the others’.
I’ve been thinking of how the good is often mixed up with the bad. How it is never quite possible for us to distill good memories from actual histories. How they are often so mixed up: our successes with our failures, our loving with our rejections, our virtues with our selfishness, our consolations with our desolations.
Jesus reminds us today that we are to be salt and light. Salt and light, I think, cannot be separated from the insipid and the darkness of this world. Salt only has purpose to give flavour to the insipid. A torch only has use in the darkness. There can be no separation, no distillation, of that which is good and that which is not good for as long as we are here on earth. We can only be salt and light only if we do not separate or exclude ourselves from the messiness of things. Indeed, love impels us to be mixed up in this non-ideal world.
How can we then be the salt and light in the world? Our first reading teaches us how to do this. The context of the reading is that the Israelites find themselves back in their homeland after their Babylonian exile. They ponder on why their fasting has not brought about any increase in favour from the Lord. The Lord tells them that the reason this is so is because while they fast they ‘seek your [their] own pleasure and oppress all your [their] workers’ (Isa 58:3). Then the Lord tells them how they are to live: not by denying themselves bread, but giving bread to the hungry; by clothing those who are naked; and not turning away from their own people. It is not fasting that the Lord is after, but acts of mercy towards the vulnerable. The effects of this merciful living is described with remarkable poetic effect:
‘[then] your light will rise in the darkness
and your shadows become like noon.’
Mercy transforms the darkness of the shadows that never leave us into the brilliance of the midday sun!
What then is it within us that is really this salt and light? I think Paul reflects on this question with great depth in our second reading. He says to the people of Corinth, that it was not his oratory, not his philosophy that he brought to the people, but simply to tell you [them] what God had guaranteed. He offered no brilliant argument or knowledge, but spoke of the crucified Christ. He had no power, no eloquence of his own, but the power of the Spirit.
Paul reflects that the salt and light in his life are not his virtues or strengths, but rather the power of God that shines through those very things that are all mixed up in him. Perhaps then, my friends, that the salt and light within us are those failures, those rejections, maybe even that selfishness, that desolation, all that is mixed up inextricably with our victories, our loving, our giving, our consolation—for what shines through them is the power of God. What then is our salt and light but the very presence of God in the midst of all that is mixed up in our hearts and in our world.
Perhaps then we need to change the way in which we perceive the salt and light in the world. It is not so much to be found in the eloquent sermon, nor in fiery retreats, not even in those great institutions we hang on to for dear life. The real salt and light that the Lord points towards is this giving up of the cult of the self for the building of the Kingdom of God. It comes in the works of many people we have been privileged to witness: the humble, patient, kindly, loving work of so many Jesuits in various places in the world like East Timor and Cambodia, the religious and lay counsellors, the teachers, the mothers and fathers, the nurses. All those who try to be salt and light right in the midst of the insipid and the darkness that surround us. All those who are mixed up in very messy circumstances, and who enact the mercy of God in all their trying, their labouring, their loving.
My dear friends, how will you be salt and light in your homes and in the paths you tread?