Year A – 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Salt and Light

(Is.58:7-10; 1Cor.2:1-5; Mt.5:13-16)

Someone once asked me, ‘To be a good Christian, is it enough to simply pray and learn about my faith?’

Let me tell you a story. There was once a great biblical scholar who was noted for his great piety. He spent hours every day secluded in his room, studying the Scriptures, praying and meditating.

One day a holy man visited the town where the scholar lived. When he heard about this, the scholar set out to look for him.

He first looked in the church, but he didn’t find him there. Then he looked in a local shrine, but he wasn’t there, either. He looked in other likely places, but couldn’t find him. Eventually, he found him in the marketplace.

On meeting him, he told the holy man who he was, and how he spent hours every day studying the Scriptures and in prayer and meditation. Then he said, ‘I have come to seek your advice on how I might grow in the service of God.’

The advice he got was simple and direct. The holy man said, ‘It’s easy to be a saint and a sage in your room. But you should go out into the marketplace and try to be a saint there.’ [i]

We don’t know how the scholar responded, but the holy man’s point is reflected in Matthew’s Gospel today. That’s where Jesus tells his followers that they must be like salt and light in the practice of their faith.

What does that mean? 

Well, by itself salt has no purpose. It’s also useless if it’s contaminated, so it must remain pure. But salt does make food tasty. It’s good for our health. It helps our hearts beat and our blood flow. It preserves food and it heals wounds. 

And so it is with us. On our own we have little purpose, because we’re meant to live in community. And we need to avoid being contaminated by sin. But like salt, Jesus wants us to keep our faith fresh and to mix with our world. He also wants us to add flavour and bring things to life. And he wants us to heal wounds and to protect and preserve what’s good and holy. 

Jesus also calls us to be ‘the light of the world’.  What does that mean?

Well, like salt, light is essential for life. We need it for our health. We need it to see where we’re going and what we’re doing. Light also symbolises knowledge and truth. It dispels darkness, it wakes people up and like the lighthouse, it warns of impending danger.

Jesus actually calls himself ‘the Light of the World’ in John 8:12, and elsewhere in Scripture God is referred to as ‘Light’ (Is.60:1-3; Ps.27:1; IJn.1:5). 

The world around us is a dark place, and too many people are struggling and groping around in spiritual darkness, trying to find their way. This is why Jesus wants us to absorb his divine light. When we allow his light to become part of us, it will change us from within and we’ll start to think and live like him.

Jesus’ light will then shine through us, just as the moon reflects the light of the sun, and our very presence will begin to make a real difference, wherever we go.

The good things we find ourselves doing don’t have to be spectacular. Even a small light can illuminate an entire room.

But when we lose our Christian identity, when we no longer bother to practise our faith, when we let ourselves succumb to the universal dumbing down of anything that’s precious,[ii] then we become as useless as salt that’s lost its flavour, or a lamp that no longer works.

Some people fear that they might not be good enough, or talented enough, to make any sort of difference. But remember what St Paul says in our second reading today. He never relies on himself to keep going in his work. He always relies on the power of God – to inspire and encourage him.

So, to be a good Christian, is it enough for us to simply pray and learn about our faith?

Clearly not.

We are all meant to be salt and light to the world, making a difference in our own way, and in our own circumstances.

[i] Flor McCarthy, New Sunday and Holy Day Liturgies – Year A. Dominican Publications, Dublin, 2013:194.

[ii] Michael Casey, Balaam’s Donkey, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 2019:366.