Fifth 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!
This seemingly wondrous opportunity was bittersweet. When the exiles reached their ancestral homeland they found deprivation and want, conditions worse than anything that they had experienced in Babylon. Imagine the disappointment and anger. But the prophet reaffirmed God’s goodness, calling upon the 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. It also was a cesspool of vice.
Paul’s message ran directly opposite all that mattered in Corinth. Skeptics scorned him, asking if the Christian Gospel made any sense. The Lord was an obstacle for many. After all, and 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.
The Apostle’s proclamation of Jesus in itself put mere human knowledge in its place.
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 highly descriptive and 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 unknown 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 usually mixed with salt. The less the dust and sand, the better the salt.
Today people are accustomed to seeing bright lights at night, but 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, as well as the Redeemer of the sinful human race, as given at Christmas, Epiphany and the Feast of the Lord’s Baptism. It challenges 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.
Matthew makes this clear, however: 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 as strong as salt and free of impurities, disciples must rid themselves of sin and fortify their Christian resolve. This is the task of Lent, soon to begin.
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