February 9; 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time; Year A

5th OT1 19 20Salt, Light and City

Today, our Lord gives us three familiar and equally enigmatic metaphors which speak to us about Christian discipleship and Christian witnessing. He tells us that we are the “salt of the earth,” “light of the world” and “a city built on a hill-top.” Today, we scarcely give a second thought to our use of salt. In fact, we are concerned about too much salt in our diets. We also try to minimise the amount of light energy that we use. We replace still-working bulbs with more energy efficient ones. We get reminded to turn off lights when we leave a room. As for cities, so many hate the hustle and bustle of urban living, and attempt to get away from the crowd and escape to the more rustic rural life for some peace and quiet. Today salt, light and cities enter our lives and consciousness most often as things which seem undesirable.

But during our Lord’s time, salt, light and fortified cities were critical elements to making life more livable, more complete, more secure. People had no qualms using them. But today, perhaps due to our lack of fully appreciating the context has led to some confusion about what it means to be salt, light and a city built on a hill.

In today’s gospel, our Lord tells us that we are “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world”. Being salt and light is not optional. Our Lord did not say “you can be”...or “you have the potential to be”. He said “you are”. He does not call us to become salt and light. He says we are that already. It is a description rather than a prescription. But the descriptive form, “you are”, carries with it, a prescriptive implication, “you ought to be,” in fact it comes with a warning that unless we are these, we will risk being “thrown out.” Through infidelity to our identity and mission we risk losing everything.

In addition to the first two metaphors, our Lord adds a third, a “city.” The Greek etymology of the word for city links it to its people, to its human residents. Thus, it is now clear that all these metaphors are pointing to us, humans of flesh and blood, and not just airy concepts or hypothetical straw men. All three metaphors have something in common. Salt does not exist for itself, but to season or preserve things; light does not exist for itself, but to brighten its surroundings; the city on the hill is constructed to provide security to its residents. The purpose and excellence of each item lies in its potential to give something to another.

So, what do we Christians have to offer others when we think of these three metaphors? The first is attraction. Good food attracts, beautiful lights attract, well-planned cities attract. This is a reminder that one of the most powerful ways of evangelisation is by showcasing the beauty of Christ, the beauty of the Christian faith and the beauty of the Church. Our Holy Father, Pope Francis reminds us that “it is not by proselytising that the Church grows, but by attraction.” (Evangelii Gaudium # 15) St. Francis de Sales, who drew many Protestants back to the Catholic faith through his gentle evangelisation, tells us that “a spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a barrel full of vinegar.” His example shows us that a life of Christian charity, virtue, and devotion can draw many souls to Christ and His Church.

But these metaphors also remind Christians that we are also meant to reveal, to expose and finally to defend. What is most immediately obvious in these metaphors is the implication that there is something deficient in the world that we live in. By saying that we are the “salt of the earth,” is implying that the world is tasteless. There is a rot setting in which is tearing our world apart. Also, with the image of light that our Lord introduces, there is the implication that this world is a dark place. The world is in need of refreshing light—life-giving light. People are wandering about, lost, unable to see, bumping into all kinds of hidden dangers in the dark, not knowing where to go or how to live life well. People are filling the void with stuff and senseless pleasures, countless things that do not satisfy. Life is tasteless and dark for far too many.

As “salt”, the Christian is to counteract the power of sin. As “light” we are to illuminate or make visible. As a “city on a hill” we are meant to provide a sanctuary to those who are lost or spiritually homeless. Our lives are to be an on-going witness to the reality of Christ's presence in our lives. As salt, light and a city built on a hill, we are meant to give testimony to the profound joy of walking with God. We become salt and light when the world sees us turning to God rather than inwardly towards ourselves, when we touch lives for good, when we affirm rather than gossip and criticise, listen rather than judge, forgive rather than get even. The Church is meant to be a beacon of hope in a world lost in moral confusion and enveloped in the darkness of sin. That beacon is bright and unmistakable in its purpose. It warns of danger. It directs to safe harbour. It provides hope for those who have lost hope. Ultimately, we are meant to “reveal” that Christ is that certain security from danger; He is our safe harbour, and ultimately He is the true source of light. We are meant to be beacons showing the way to Him.

This is why the metaphors offered to us are so important. There is something about a Christian that doesn’t fit with the bigger picture – there is something about Christians that stands out. Christians are different, they are counter-cultural, they swim against the tide, and they refuse to join the mad stampede of the masses. Christians should make their presence felt and be as impactful as possible, not so much for the purpose of drawing attention to ourselves, but drawing attention to Christ. Our very presence not only shakes the world from its stupour, exposes the cover of lies under which it hides, brings to the surface the deficiency of its barren soul; but also tells the world that it can only find completeness and satisfaction in Christ.

But the gospel also provides a potent warning, when our salt loses its taste or we keep our light hidden, or our cities become empty fixtures, that is, we choose to blend into society and conform to its norms and morals, then we have no value to God – we become worthless. It is our distinctiveness and not our conformity which will serve to be the measure by which we will be judged. We are not meant to be invisible Catholics. We were not meant to be chameleon Christians, constantly struggling to blend into our environment for the sake of survival. Unfortunately, many Christians are more concerned with sugar coating the Christian message than they are in delivering the hard truth of the Gospel. We are meant to be salt not sugar. What good is a soldier who will not fight, a doctor who will not cure the sick, or a Christian who will not stand up against evil? What good is salt when it becomes tasteless, light when it is extinguished and a city that has become uninhabitable? Our Lord gives the answer, “it is good for nothing?”

The option of living a sheltered secluded life is never open to us. The Lord does not need a Church that hides and isolates itself from the world. Rather, God needs Christians who live exemplary and visible Christian lives in the world and demonstrate that joy and fulfillment that come not of the world but through the life in the Spirit and the radical following of Christ. And so God calls us into the darkness where our light will make a difference – to illumine and expose. He calls us among those who find life utterly tasteless—to be salt – to create a spiritual thirst for God. He calls us to societies made up of lonely, isolated and individualistic persons – to build a city, a community of love, life and peace. Ultimately “you must shine in the sight of men, so that, seeing your good works, they may give praise to your Father in heaven.”