06Feb Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme

Tyranny and oppression still flourish in many parts of the world. Other facets of unfairness and structural abuses often stare us in the face, closer to home, such as long-term poverty, unemployment and homelessness. Christ’s message calls for our solidarity with people in dire need. How seriously do we take his call and challenge, to be Salt of the earth and shine some light in our world?

Readings

Is 58:7-10. To be upright and honest in God’s sight, we must find ways to share our good fortune with those who are less well off.

1 Cor 2:1-5. Paul’s ministry in Corinth centred on how we are saved by the sacrifice of Jesus, and not by our own efforts or learning.

Mt 5:13-16. Salt of the earth; the light of the world – the example of Christians lives should shine the light of Christ to brighten our unbelieving world.

{For the full text of today’s readings, scroll to the end of this file}.

Bidding Prayers

– that we may more genuinely be “light for the world” and “salt of the earth” as Jesus calls us to be.

– that the members of our church and its leadership processes at all levels may be marked by a spirit of sincerity, transparency and fair dealing.

– for the generosity to care about, and even share some of our bread and our property, with people who are hungry and in need.

– for the kindness and the vision to play our part in sheltering the homeless poor, and clothing the naked.

– for the divine charity of our Saviour Jesus Christ to be reflected in our lives, and in the whole life of the Church.

First Reading: Isaiah 58:7-10

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

Second Reading: First Corinthians 2:1-5

When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

Gospel: Matthew 5:13-16

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

The Clenched Fist (Liam Swords)

Revolutions tend to be highly contagious. Such was the case with the French Revolution. The fall of the Bastille resounded even in Ireland where it gave birth to the United Irishmen and the rebellion of 1798. No wonder the Archbishop of Dublin at the time reported despondently to Rome that the “French disease” was spreading. That was over two centuries ago. Nowadays, television relays the pictures instantly worldwide, so the effects are more immediate. No sooner had the Berlin Wall collapsed than the edifice of Soviet domination over a whole line of Eastern European countries began to crumble.

Some four thousand years ago, the prophet Isaiah gave what seems a remarkably modern analysis of revolutions and their causes. The tyrannies which they attack, he described as the “yoke, the clenched fist and the wicked word.” The “yoke” was the system of apartheid by the white racist regime in South Africa or the totalitarian dictatorship in Soviet Russia. The “clinched fist” was the system of terror used to maintain the regime. The world knows now how clinched that fist was in Stalinist Russia, with its gulags and Siberian prison-camps. Mass graves were discovered which reveal the enormity of the massacres carried out by Stalin and his cronies, to be rid of those who dared to raise their voice in protest.

A more modern term for “the wicked word” is propaganda. For tyrannies to thrive, they need at least the acquiescence of the majority population. The citizens are propagandised virtually from the cradle to the grave. The “wicked word” becomes the accepted truth. Brain-washing, in what were euphemistically referred to as psychiatric correctional centres, was ruthlessly applied to those few who dared even to think differently. We now know how many ordinary citizens collaborated with the system. In Rumania, it is suggested that they were as many as one in four.

Revolutions come and go. Tragically, too often they just exchange one tyranny for another. Lenin was the great liberator of Russia and the tyranny that followed was worse than ever was perpetuated by the Csars. The same might be said of Fidel Castro in Cuba. So often, “glorious” revolutions are little more than tyrannies exchanged. As the poet, Yeats, described it:

Hurrah for revolution and more cannon-shot!
A beggar on horseback lashes a beggar on foot.
Hurrah for revolution and cannon come again!
The beggars have changed places, but the lash goes on.

Isaiah proposes radical remedies for the underlying causes of revolutions or as he puts it “to do away with the yoke, the clinched fist and the wicked word.” Firstly, “share your bread with the hungry.” It is not surprising that the French Revolution began with a march of the women of Paris to the royal palace at Versailles in search of bread or that the downfall of communism in Russia began with long queues outside Moscow’s stores with their empty food-shelves. Judging by the numbers of starving in our world, there are a lot of revolutions brewing out there, and the worst is yet to come. We should hear Isaiah’s warning to “share our bread with the hungry” before it is too late. I’m sure he wasn’t thinking in terms of our paltry foreign aid.

His second remedy is to “shelter the homeless poor.” For these we don’t have to look far. You will find them in plenty in Paris, Rome or Dublin, sleeping rough on the streets or in doorways with cardboard boxes for covering. Land speculation by the greedy has led to rocketting house-prices. Even the moderately well off young couple are obliged to mortgage their lives to provide a roof over their heads. The huge new office-block complexes, often largely untenanted, while a growing number of poor remain unhoused is a terrible indictment of our system.

“Nakedness” comes in many forms. The long dole-queue is a line of “naked” people. People without jobs are just as naked as people without clothes. Children without education face a lifetime of nakedness. The almost regular summer riots in the deprived urban areas where unemployment is rampant, suggest they are nurseries of revolutions. To clothe the naked is to solve unemployment. We ignore it at our peril. Isaiah, four-thousand years ago, provided the answer we are still searching for: “Share your bread with the hungry, and shelter the homeless poor, clothe the man you see to be naked and turn not from your own kin. Then will your light shine like the dawn and your wound be quickly healed over.”

Salt of the Earth (Henry Wansbrough)

(1) The two images of salt and light to the world are powerful ones Salt stands apart from insipid food to which it gives taste, and light stands in sharp contrast to darkness which it dispels. They may be used to delineate the position of the Christian in the world, especially today. It may well not be true that – as the prophets of doom. claim -we live in a world of declining standards, but it is certainly true that the man who has firm principles by which he lives stands out more. No longer is morality buoyed up by the props of a Christian society as in the Middle Ages or by the bourgeois conventionalism of the nineteenth century. People are far more ready to make their own decisions about belief and behaviour – which is a good thing – but often on insufficient information and thought – which is not. Religious education is declining, and with it the automatic safeguards which protected Christian practice.

There is, as in most situations, a loss and a gain in all this, though luckily the preacher is not called upon to make a balance-sheet, whose emphasis would vary according to his own temperament. But it does mean undeniably that the Christian is far more noticeable and has a more isolated position, combined with a strong opportunity to be a witness to others for the values of Jesus.

(2) The way this Christian witness is presented might well touch upon the twin dangers or intransigence and hypocrisy. If the Christian stands alone in making a stand in such matters as business morality, the morality of marriage or public service, there is a danger that he may make a show of Christianity in these matters which is only superficial, a visible morality which cloaks corruption within, in the same way as the whitewashed tombs which were the Pharisees. It is only a few verses later that Matthew warns three times against a parade of virtue: “Your left hand must not know what your right is doing” and good works must be done in secret. The paradox of the combination of these two seemingly opposed counsels can be resolved in that it is precisely by its self-effacing unobtrusiveness that the Christian witness is noticed. The other danger of self-righteous hardness and superiority is simply clean contrary to the open generosity of Jesus.

(3) This theme of witness to the values of Jesus might well knit with the theme of grace in the Pauline reading, since it is only through grace that all this is possible. Similarly Paul found success only through “the power of the Spirit.” Grace is really the attitude of God to which the qualities in man correspond. Primarily it is the favour or – in more anthropomorphic terms – the smile of God upon someone, like the smile of an absolute monarch who bestows what he will upon whom he will. The prime gift of God to man is the gift of the Spirit, which is the gift of God’s own presence and so of his power. It is a great mistake to think of it in any material terms, for example, as a sort of fuel or electrical power. It must be thought of always as a personal relationship. Even the love of man for woman, parent for child, their confidence, expectations and reassurance, have the power to draw on the beloved to achievement of which they would otherwise be incapable. The creative love of God and his indwelling love, actually present within us, have far more power.

Shine Out(John Walsh)

In India when two people meet, instead of shaking hands as we do in the West, they have a graceful custom of joining their hands, as if in prayer, and bowing towards each other, a gesture which appears so meaningful and full of respect. Perhaps the best way to counter the sign of the clenched fist, mentioned today by Isaiah, is with the sign of the joined hands, which denotes generosity and respect, and one might even say readiness to pray for others. If you allow your life to be moulded by such attitudes, then indeed “your light will rise in the darkness, and your shadows become like the noonday.” The gospel is even more emphatic when it says, “Your light must shine before others, so that, seeing your good works, they may give the praise to your Father in heaven.”

There might seem, however, to be a contradiction between this saying about “letting your light shine,” and the fact that Christ spent all his own life – with the exception of three years – in the obscurity of the remote village of Nazareth, and that seemingly with little effect, for the inhabitants refused obstinately to see him as anything other than the carpenter, the son of Mary. So much so, as St Mark tells us, that Jesus himself was amazed at their incredulity. “He could work no miracle there because of their lack of faith,” (Mk 6:5f). How consistent is Jesus, if he cautions me not to hide my light under a tub, while all that time at Nazareth he seemed to act like the man in his own parable, who received but one talent and was condemned for not putting it to good use. The message of his quiet life in Nazareth is not easy to unravel. What Jesus was called upon to practise at Nazareth was the heroism of the ordinary, the daily, often dull, routine, which requires its own kind of courage. Nazareth then was the scene of a hidden life, the ordinary everyday life of a family, made up of work and prayer, marked only by hidden virtues, and only God and Christ’s closest relatives and neighbours were witnesses to any of it. Here in fact we have mirrored the lives of the majority of us. What sets Jesus apart from the rest of us is that he possessed the one basic talent, beside which all others are worthless. This was his ability to remain in God, to anchor his whole life firmly in the Father, to let the Father be the guiding force in his life. In his own words, “The Son can do only what he sees the Father doing, and whatever the Father does the Son does too” (Jn 5:19). But this close relationship with God is not something we can earn, or plan for ourselves. It is God’s miracle, God’s doing. It is like the man in the parable, who scatters seed on the land. Night and day, while he sleeps or when he is awake, the seed is germinating, sprouting, growing. But how, he does not know. Concealment, we might even say, is the way God’s glory is revealed in the world. So for the people of Nazareth, Jesus would remain just “the carpenter;” while it was only through the mystery of the resurrection that the light of Christ’s true identity was revealed to his chosen disciples. So it was too with many of the great saints, who never tried to create an impression of holiness, but strove inwardly to remain always close to God, “in loving attentive expectancy,” as St John of the Cross said. These words could admirably describe the short life of another great Carmelite saint. Therese of the Child Jesus died at the age of 24, after nine years in her Convent at Lisieux.

Very few people took notice. According to her natural sister, Pauline, several of the other nuns even said that Teresa had been doing nothing, had come to Carmel seemingly to amuse herself. Yet in the following twenty years this community sent out over 750,000 copies of her Abridged Life, and 250,000 copies of The Story of a Soul, the account of her life written under obedience by Teresa herself. Within less than thirty years she had been canonised a saint in Rome before 50,000 people in St Peter’s Basilica and an estimated half million in the Square outside. Two years later little Teresa Martin who had never once left her convent was proclaimed Patroness of the Foreign Missions. How did this come about? Reflecting on St Paul’s assertion that there are three virtues which endure, faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love, Teresa saw her mission in life. “In the heart of my mother, the Church,” she said, “I shall be love.” And in the concealment of her convent God’s glory was to be revealed in a special way before the whole world.

Attracting, not promoting (Jack McArdle)

Today’s gospel is about Christian witness. Christianity is about attracting, not promoting. The gospel is implanted by the presence of a Christian living in that area.

When I was growing up, we didn’t have fridges or freezers, as we have today. Every year my father killed a pig. The only way we had to preserve the sides of bacon over the months, until we could get around to eating the lot, was to pack the portions into boxes of salt. There was really as much salt as bacon in each box. One of the attributes of salt is to preserve, to keep food from going rotten.

I also remember from back then, we didn’t have electricity. We had oil lamps, tilley lamps, hurricane lamps (for outside use) and, on occasions, we had a candle or two. I well remember the arrival of the electricity, and the excitement it generated among us kids. We would even have electric light in the cow house, as well as down at the end of the farmyard. This was exciting stuff for us country kids. To have light anywhere around the house, or outside the house, all one had to do was press a switch. This had profound effects on our daily life. We had a wireless that didn’t need to have the battery charged every few weeks. We could do our homework in any corner of the kitchen, or in a bedroom. We no longer lived with the dangers (and the fumes) of oil lamps, of the spirits used in the tilley, or with the danger of a burning candle falling over, or left burning and unattended.

I’m sure you can see that I can readily identify with today’s gospel. Among the roughest and toughest ghettos there are some beautiful and special people; and if they were not there, the whole area would be rotten. Most initiatives for self-help and for self-improvement in that area are the inspiration of these few. Neighbourhood Watch, Drug Awareness, investment in facilities for social and recreational needs are to be found in the toughest areas of the toughest towns. If you check into it, I’ll guarantee you that the initiative and the impetus came from that small group, who could well be called the salt of that area. Just as a pinch of salt can greatly improve the taste of food, so too much salt would destroy anything. That is why there can be such a benefit from the presence of just a few.

I’m sure you heard the saying that it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness. One candle doesn’t give a great deal of light, but imagine a room in total darkness, and someone enters it bearing a lit candle. It is important to remind ourselves again that the kingdom of God is made up of tiny acts, and most of them are hidden. There is another saying that if each before his own door swept, the whole village would be clean.

Today’s gospel is just beautiful in its simplicity. Earlier on, Jesus had declared himself as the light of the world. Today he tells us that we are to be the light of the world. I would rather be guided by a lighthouse than to be rescued by a lifeboat. Without preaching from a butter-box in the town square, I can preach the Christian message through everything I do, and every word I say. If the Spirit of God lives within me, then naturally, wherever I go, I bring the Spirit with me. When Jesus ascended into heaven, when he returned to the Father, with mission accomplished, he brought the body he had with him. He then sent his Spirit, and asked us to provide the body. He has no other feet, hands, or voice but ours.

Response: What good is salt if it loses its taste? What good is a light if you cover it and prevent the light from being seen? In today’s gospel, Jesus tells us that we are the salt of earth and the light of the world. In other words, we have what it takes. The onus, then, is on us whether we make use of that or not. There is nothing automatic about being a Christian. It demands definite and personal decisions, and it demands that we carry out those decisions.

Letting your good deeds be seen is not seeking public display or showing off. It simply means that, if I am a Christian, I should be seen to act and to live in a Christian way. “By this will everyone know that you are my disciples if you love one another.” We are called to live the gospel, rather than just believe it or preach it. It’s a strange thing but, if I went to live in a cave in the Dublin mountains, without telling anyone, and if I opened my heart to the fullness of the life of the Trinity, as offered by the Father, effected by the Son, and completed by the Spirit, there would be a procession of people climbing that mountain to visit me within a year or two. Real Christian witness is a powerful instrument for influencing others for good. Not only are we the salt of the earth, and are we people who must let our Christian light shine brightly in today’s world; we are also the living presence of the all-holy God, because we carry the Spirit of God within our hearts, we are members of the kingdom or the family of God, and we are God’s touch-persons in the lives of others.

Have you ever come across people who seem to light up a room as soon as they enter it? They are people who are fully human and fully alive. They seem to wear antennae on their heads, because their sensitivity to others will immediately alert them to someone in the room who is Out of sorts, is hurting, or uncomfortable. Because they themselves are fully alive, they transmit life to those around them. In his description of the General Judgement, Jesus has such people asking “Lord, when we see you hungry and clothe you, etc.?” Because of the kind of people they are, they are not conscious of the good they are doing. For them, to act in such a way has become a way of being. Such people are certainly the salt of the earth, and the light of the world.

Time magazine once had a story that can give us all food for thought. An electrical fuse, about the size of a bread box, failed, resulting in 80,000 square miles along the US Canadian border being plunged into darkness. All the electrical power for that entire region passed through that single fuse. Without that fuse no power could reach any point in that vast region. The kingdom of God is built through the accumulation of tiny acts, most of which go unnoticed. We are all, unfortunately, too familiar with people gathering at scenes of atrocities and, as a statement of their abhorrence, they light and carry small candles.