When I was a seminarian, the pastor of my home parish, Saint Mary’s in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, was a beloved elderly priest. He was very good to me, to my family, and to all the parishioners. I remember that he would often describe the parishioners of Saint Mary’s as “the salt of the earth.” Whenever he talked about the people he served with such love and devotion, he would say: “The parishioners of Saint Mary’s are the salt of the earth.”
This expression “the salt of the earth” comes from Jesus Himself in the Sermon on the Mount. After teaching the Beatitudes, he said to the people: “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.”
Last March, I led a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. One of the places we visited was the Mount of the Beatitudes, the hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee, upon which Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. It was a great joy to celebrate Holy Mass at that holy place. Our tour guide gave a talk, which I still remember because he pointed out something that I had not really thought about before. He explained how dramatic the words of today’s Gospel were to the people Jesus was addressing. They were simple people, many of them poor. They had very ordinary and simple jobs. Some were fishermen, like Peter, James, and John. They lived in what was considered a rather unimportant and obscure area of the world, Galilee. What must they have thought when Jesus called them “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world?” We can ask that same question today, because Jesus also meant those words for us, His followers, His disciples, today.
The image of salt is a very ordinary, everyday image. In the time of Jesus (before refrigeration and preservation), salt was necessary for preserving meats and other foods, to keep them from spoiling. Salt also adds flavor and zest to food. But if it loses its power to preserve and if it loses its flavor, it is of no use. When Jesus says “you are the salt of the earth,” he is telling us that we have the task on this earth to preserve and to give flavor. We are to preserve the new life of grace He has brought to our world. And we are to give flavor, that is, meaning and spice to people’s lives. Salt enhances the quality of food. Being salt, we can contribute to enhancing the quality of others’ lives. Life becomes tasty and full of flavor when it contains the salt of Jesus, His word, His loving kindness, His benevolence, His mercy and forgiveness. Jesus wants this spice of life to reach all people. He needs people who live it and make it visible. He needs disciples who are themselves “salt of the earth,” who bring the salt of Jesus to others, who manifest His kindness, compassion, and love. When His disciples lack kindness and mercy and love, they no longer bring this spice of life to others. Jesus says that if salt loses its taste, “it is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”
The meaning of the other image Jesus uses “the light of the world” is clear. Again, imagine how the people listening to the Sermon on the Mount must have felt when they heard those words. They lived in a relatively obscure place, in poor Galilee, yet Jesus told them they were the light for the whole world. Some may have thought that Jesus was exaggerating, but He wasn’t. It is true that none of them and none of us can be such a great light through our own efforts alone. We must remember other words of Jesus, when He said of Himself: “I am the light of the world.” He instructed His disciples to go to all nations and peoples and to bring His light to them. This is what happened. From those first simple followers, the light of Christ spread through the Church to all the ends of the earth. And this light continues to spread today. This is our mission, whatever our state in life: to let the light of Christ shine through us wherever we go and whatever we do. This is done by living our faith, by putting it into action, especially by loving one another as Christ has loved us.
A similar message is found in our first reading today from the prophet Isaiah. God teaches us through the prophet that our light will break forth like the dawn when we share bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless, and clothe the naked. These are a few of the corporal works of mercy. In the responsorial psalm today, we sang: “The just man is a light in darkness to the upright.” According to the psalmist, this light shines when one is gracious and merciful and just.
Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes which we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel. Immediately after teaching the Beatitudes, He said the words: “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” It’s clear, therefore, that it’s when we live the Beatitudes that we are salt and light. We bring flavor and light to people’s lives when we live as men and women of the Beatitudes.
It is good to ask ourselves if we truly bring salt and light to the lives of others, to the members of our own families, to classmates, to coworkers, to friends, to fellow parishioners? Do we bring salt and light to the needy and the afflicted, and to those who are suffering? Jesus says that we don’t light a lamp and put it under a bushel basket. Rather, we set it on a lampstand, “where it gives light to all in the house.” So our Lord says to us: “Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” Being a Christian, being a Catholic, should not be a private matter. We shouldn’t hide. “A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden,” Jesus says. We should be visible by our lives, our good works, the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, and the Beatitudes. That’s how we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
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