Pastoral Reflections

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time - 2017
Isaiah 58:7-10
1st Corinthians 2:1-5
Matthew 5:13-16

This week’s gospel lesson continues with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Matthew was not a contemporary of Christ. He wrote his Gospel for the Jewish Christian community of Antioch some fifty years after the death of Christ. His goal was to help convince the inhabitants of Antioch and the surrounding area that Jesus was, who he said he was – the promised Messiah, and the Son of God. He was focused on presenting Jesus as the ‘New Moses,’ someone who had come to perfect the Law of Moses, first received on Mt. Sinai almost a millennium and a half prior to Jesus’ birth.
The Beatitudes of Matthew’s gospel end with a reference to the ‘abuse’ and ‘persecution’, that will be the lot of those who heed the call of Jesus and openly witness his message. At the time that Matthew was writing, there was a growing tension between the new Christian converts from among the Jews and those who elected to remain faithful to Jewish orthodoxy. All of the first converts to Christianity were coming out of orthodox Jewish communities. These converts typically continued to attend the local synagogues and practiced their Jewish faith alongside their Christian beliefs. This created intense unrest within the synagogues across Jerusalem and the diaspora.

Prior to his conversion, St. Paul traveled throughout the countryside to address this growing unrest and to arrest and punish these early converts. He was on such a trip when he underwent his own conversion on the road to Damascus.

Matthew’s emphasis upon abuse and persecution is no doubt a reflection of this contemporary situation wherein communities of Jewish converts to Christianity were being expelled from their local synagogues. As a matter of fact, the tensions between the early Christians and Jews reached a crescendo in 90 AD. At the Council of Jamnia in that year, the Orthodox rabbis convened to clearly stipulate how Orthodox Jews differed in belief from the Christians and to stem the tide of Christian conversion. They formally anathematized these ‘converts’ to Christianity and excluded them, under the pain of death, from ever participating with any synagogue. Against this background, we can understand why Matthew now incorporates two parables of Jesus concerning the quality of witness that is expected from his followers.

These brief but powerful parables put us in the presence of Jesus, the teacher who made such an impression, as he appealed to the basic things of life so familiar to all his hearers. Salt is a commodity that is prized by all peoples for its flavoring and preservative qualities. Though pure salt is very stable, the salt of common use, referred to by Jesus, was far from pure and could easily become useless. Light is such an eloquent symbol that all the world’s religious traditions have appealed to it.

As this week’s first reading reminds us, the prophets made use of this imagery as well. In the writings of Isaiah, God’s people had not only found the light in his call of them, but they were also called to be bearers of this light to the rest of the world. We read in Isaiah, the 49th chapter, the 6th verse, ‘I shall make you a light to the nations, so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth’. This great theme of light finds its ultimate expression in Christ’s Church, the final People of God, through our union with the Savior, whose life is ‘the light of all people’ (John 1:4).

For Matthew, therefore, the words of Jesus, ‘You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world’, are addressed to the members of a convert community in the midst of rejection and difficulties, and in danger of losing heart. And for the Church down through the ages, it has proclaimed that the Sermon on the Mount, the words of Jesus, are addressed to the Church, as it faces similar situations.

In the present moment of history, when the tide seems to be running strongly against the things the Savior stands for, we know the temptation to lose heart as we face the task of evangelization. But, as we hear the brave words of Jesus we should recognize their realism. It’s as if Jesus anticipates the misgivings persecution can foment.

The magnificent light that has been entrusted to us, bringing us life and hope, must not be ‘put under a basket’. The Church community must offer its light to a desperate and struggling world, like a beautiful city built on a hilltop that shines in the darkness. If we have received this charge from Jesus, we can rely upon the help that only he can give. Even the great St. Paul, whose witness to faith in Christ has proved so fundamental in the life of the Church since the beginning, came to recognize this and reminds us of that reality in today’s second lesson.

Paul states understanding that the sharing of his faith in Jesus did not depend upon his brilliant oratory or argumentation. Instead, the ‘power of the Spirit’ was made manifest through the sincerity of his simple faith in ‘the crucified Christ’. And so, while Jesus tells us that we must be evangelizers, he also gives us practical advice as to how we are to give our ‘witness’ to the Good News he brings.

Our light should ‘shine’, first and foremost, through our attitude and ‘good works’ that make it clear that we are true offspring of our ‘Father in heaven’. When Jesus evangelized, he always began with a very practical question, ‘what is it that I can do for you?’ He then would do everything is his power to meet that need, provide that cure, remove that barrier. Only after that was accomplished did Jesus begin to invite the individual to hear his message and follow him. The practical application here my friends, is that the visible quality of true Christian living, the act of giving comfort in some fashion, can indeed serve to transform the world one person at a time.

As we move into a new week, let us renew our commitment to visibly live our faith toward the betterment of everyone that we have the privilege to meet. Let our Christ-like actions serve to bring Jesus and his good news to our families, our neighborhoods and our communities-at-large. Let us tend to the wounds suffered by our neighbors and approach them with a compassionate heart. Our kindness, as we deal with others, is what brings the mercy of Christ to them and serves to allow us to succeed in the process of evangelization. Meaningful evangelization is always one person at a time.

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