Written by Nicholas King SJ
Wednesday, 18 December 2013 12:47
• Isaiah 58:7-10
• Psalm 112:4-9
• 1 Corinthians 2:1-5
• Matthew 5:13-16
Why is it that not everyone believes in the God in whom you and I believe? Is it, perhaps, because when people look at us, they do not see the gospel values that we proclaim? That is an age-old problem of religion: our high ideals inevitably expose us to the charge of hypocrisy.
The first reading is a powerful reminder that religious people do not always get it right. All well and good, the prophet argues, if you fast when you are supposed to, but it is useless unless it turns out to others: “share your bread with the hungry, and bring the oppressed and homeless into your home, clothe the naked when you see them”. That is when the message will go out to our world: “then your light shall burst through like the dawn”. And not only that, but our prayers will start to get somewhere: “then you shall call, and the Lord will answer, you will cry, and he’ll say ‘I’m here’.” And once more God’s thoughts turn to the poor, “if you give your bread to the hungry...then your light shall rise in the darkness”.
The psalm continues the message, and sings about those who “fear the Lord”: “[their] light shines in the darkness, they are gracious, and merciful and just”. “A good man is generous and lends”, we gather, and we gaze nervously at the meanness of our lives, as he continues to sing of “those who manage their business with justice...generously they give to the poor, their righteousness stands for ever.” We shall do well to sing this song in the coming week.
In the second reading, Paul is reminding his readers of the values that they should be living by, if others are to come to faith. He brings to their minds the circumstances of his first arriving in Corinth, after a somewhat unsuccessful visit to Athens. Now the Corinthians had evidently been complaining that he was a bit lacking in the “wisdom” that they valued (and which Paul rather despised) and the “rhetoric” that their best Sophists (perhaps “spin-doctors” would be the best translation). But after his failure in Athens, he reminds them that he arrived “in weakness and fear and much nervousness”, having decided to know nothing among you other than Jesus Christ – and him crucified!”. So when he had come to them, his “rhetoric” and his “preaching” was not in the clever language of the “spin-doctor”, “but in demonstrating the Spirit’s power”. And the reason? “So that your faith should not depend on cleverness, but on God’s power.” God’s values are different from ours, and they constantly challenge us; what is more, if we fail to allow that challenge to prick the bubble of our complacency, then we shall not bring others to belief.
The point is deftly made in the gospel, as Jesus uses two metaphors, of “light” and “salt”, as he continues his Sermon on the Mount; and he addresses his willing disciples as “the salt of the earth”, which seems flattering in a way, but then he reminds them what it means: “if the salt loses its edge, how is it going to be salted? It is good for nothing except to be thrown out and trampled down by people”. The second image is that of “light”, and the disciples are told that they are “the light of the world”, which may be a bit of a shock, for they (and we) will have supposed that it was Jesus who was the light of the world. So now we have to take seriously our task in this darkened world. Jesus makes a bit of a joke of it: “a city cannot be hidden if it lies on top of a mountain”. Similarly, “you don’t turn on a light and put it under a bucket. You put it on a lamp-stand, and it gives light to everybody in the house.” And the light is not intended to make sure that people will gasp in admiration of us; our light is to “shine before people in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father, the one in Heaven”. Let us remember, this week, our task of bringing people to God, simply by the way we live.