5th Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Book of Isaiah’s third section is the source of this first weekend’s reading. Scholars believe that this section was written perhaps in Jerusalem for the Hebrew remnant that had returned from Babylon.
This would put this section of Isaiah at a date after the epic Babylonian captivity. As political fortunes turned, the Persian ruler, Cyrus, had overtaken Babylon, and his decree allowed the Jewish exiles to return to their homeland after an absence of four generations. Indeed, probably few had ever seen their homeland.
Nevertheless, release from Babylon brought utter exhilaration to the exiles. They were free to go home!
However, the opportunity was bittersweet. When the exiles reached their ancestral homeland, they found deprivation and want, conditions worse than those that they had experienced in Babylon.
In this section of the Book of Isaiah, the prophet reaffirmed God’s goodness, but the prophet also called upon his people themselves to provide for those in need. Then they would experience the fullness of vindication, the fullness of God’s promise to give them life and peace.
St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians provides the second reading. This epistle was addressed to Christians living in Corinth, then one of the major cities of the Roman Empire. Rich and sophisticated, Corinth was a virtual center of the culture at the time. Nearby was Athens, the very symbol of wisdom and logic. Paul had preached in Athens, not with great success.
He encountered skeptics who asked if the Christian Gospel made any sense. After all, the Gospel ran counter to every conventional pattern of thought. And, finally and most importantly for so many, the founder of Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth, had been legally executed as a common criminal and as a traitor to the empire.
In response, Paul insisted that he relied upon a source greater and more dependable than human wisdom, namely the Holy Spirit.
St. Matthew’s Gospel furnishes the last reading, a collection of two brief statements by Jesus, given in the highly descriptive but clear imagery.
In the first statement, Jesus tells the disciples that they are the “salt of the earth.” In the second, the Lord admonishes followers to be the “light of the world.” These images, salt and light, hardly are unknown today, but an ancient aspect of each of them is not known in this culture.
At the time of Jesus, salt was precious. Roman soldiers were paid in salt. (“He is not worth his salt.”) “Salary” derives from this practice. Salt also was unrefined. Dust or sand mixed with salt. The less the dust and sand, the better the salt.
Today people are accustomed to bright light at night. Darkness was a serious obstacle at the time of Jesus. Light, then, was precious in its own sense.
Jesus urges disciples to uplift the earthly society by being “salt” and “light.”
Gently, but deliberately, the Church is guiding us onward from its introduction of Jesus of Nazareth as son of the human Mary, and Son of God, and Redeemer of the sinful human race, as given at Christmas, Epiphany and the Feast of the Lord’s Baptism. It is challenging us to respond to Jesus.
These readings are clear. Discipleship is no mere lip service. It is the actual and intentional resembling of Christ in our daily lives.
However, and Matthew makes this clear, believers have a strength upon which to draw as they illuminate the world. It is within the grace of their faith. As disciples, they are precious. Being a disciple is demanding, but it is not impossible.
Of course, to be pure, worthy and therefore strong as was salt free of impurities, so disciples must rid themselves of sin and fortify their Christian resolve. This is the task of holiness.
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