Sunday, February 5, 2023

On being salt and light

Readings: Isa 58:7-10; Ps 112:4-9; 1 Cor 2:1-5; Matt 5:13-16

Today's Gospel reading is one of those that doesn't really require a lot of gloss, explanation, or interpretation. But there are a few features of this teaching, which immediately follows Jesus' teaching of the Beatitudes, that bear reflecting on. One observation prior to delving into this pericope more deeply is that, given its location in Saint Matthew's Gospel, it is safe to say that living the Beatitudes, living beatitudinally, is how followers of Jesus are salt and light. When reading the scriptures, context matters!

Getting to the heart of what I think requires some explanation, it is all too easy to understand these four Matthean verses in a Pelagian way. I hesitate to invoke "Pelgian" like this, if this is Pelagianism, Pelagius was not a Pelagian. What I call "Pelagian" is the strawman Augustine posited and then pilloried. So, in this sense, "Pelgian" means something like doing good works to earn salvation and benefits from God. So, Jesus is not saying that, as his follower, you become salt and light by doing good works for those reasons. How can I assert that so confidently?

I can be confident in my assertion because Jesus, according to the inspired author of Matthew, speaking to his disciples, tells them "You are the salt of the earth" and "You are the light of the world." Following the latter statement, he tells his followers their light must shine before others. You have it, he's saying, so don't hide it. It stands to reason that you can't become what you already are. This gets to things like the grace communicated through the sacraments.

What is it that we have as Christians? Saint Paul, in our reading from 1 Corinthians, provides us with the answer to that question. We have "the mystery of God" that has been proclaimed to us. What is the mystery of God? It is the Paschal Mystery: the death and resurrection of Jesus, God's only begotten Son. The "Spirit" and "power" about which Paul writes are nothing other than the cruciform nature of genuninely Christian existence.

Living beatitudinally means living in a cruciform way. What does it mean to live in a cruciform way? It means living in a sacrificially selfless way. The Beatitudes, because they are Jesus' self-portrait, sketch out what it means to live as Christians. Demonstrating the Spirit's power is not calling down Zeus' lightning bolt and other such things. Christians are not pagans.

Demonstrations of the Spirit's power are harvesting the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (See Galatians 5:22). I find it interesting that there are nine Beatitudes and nine fruits of the Spirit. While there may not be a one-to-one correspondence between them, they certainly resonate.

Always bear in mind that Jesus did not come to lay heavy burdens on you. Later on in Matthew, he chastises the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law for doing just this (see Matthew 23:1-4). Jesus came to lift your burden, to make you truly free. Living beatitudinally is what happens when someone realizes her freedom.

For a Christian, true freedom, according to the Beatitudes, is not freedom from (mourning, marginalization, persecution, conflict, poverty, etc.). Rather, true freedom, as Jesus shows us by his birth, life, passion, and death, is the freedom to love God and your neighbor. This love is the demonstration of power that Paul no doubt refers to when writing to the Church in ancient Corinth.

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