February 9, 2014
SALT OF THE EARTH AND LIGHT OF THE WORLD
What is the greatest hindrance to Christianity in our country? This is a question that is bound to elicit a variety of answers depending on whom you ask. Possible answers would include: the mass media, popular culture, materialism, bad government policies, other religions, etc. A missionary had the occasion to put this very question to the great Mahatma Gandhi, “What is the greatest hindrance to Christianity in India?” His answer was swift and decisive: “Christians.” It is said that the world would be a more Christian place today were it not for the Christians. The Christians that constitute a hindrance to Christianity are not the real and committed ones, of course, but those who bear the name Christian but, judging from the way they talk and behave, no one would suspect they have anything to do with Christ.
In today’s gospel Jesus says to his disciples, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). But elsewhere in John 8:12 Jesus says of himself, “I am the light of the world.” Who then is the light of the world, Jesus or his followers? This apparent contradiction is resolved by another passage in John 9:5 where Jesus modifies the statement about himself: “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” This shows that Jesus is talking about the flesh and blood embodiment of the light. As long as he is physically present in the world he is the light of the world, but when he is no longer physically present his followers now assume the role of being the light of the world.
The role of the Christian in the world is defined by two words in today’s gospel: salt and light. Now what do these mean? Do you know that the word “sugar” never occurs in the Bible? In ancient times salt was the ultimate seasoning that gave taste to food. Without salt food would be tasteless. Jesus is saying that as salt (or sugar, if you like) is to food, so are Christians to the world. Christians are in the world to make it a sweeter place. How can we make the world a sweeter place? We find the answer in the parallel passage in Mark: “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another” (Mark 9:50).
As salt we are called to be sweet disciples, friendly and kind, living at peace with everybody. As light we are called to show the way. Without light we bump into each another and fall into the ditch. But light says: “Here is the road, take it; here is danger, avoid it.” Without light and salt the world would be in a very bad shape, uninteresting and impossible to live in. With light and salt the world becomes a safer and better place. It is our duty as Christians to make the world a better place.
But how do we do that? The same way that salt and light do it. First, salt must be different from the food before it can be of use. If salt loses its taste then it is useless and can no longer make a difference. Light must be different from darkness in order to be of help. A flashlight with dead batteries is no good for someone in the dark. So being salt and light of the world means being different from the world. If believers have nothing that distinguishes them from unbelievers, then they are like salt that has lost its saltiness and therefore cannot make a difference. And what distinguishes us from non-believers should be not so much what we claim to be or the badges and pins we wear but the life we live. As Jesus says in John 13:35, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Love is the distinctive mark by which you can tell the true Christian from the false.
Secondly, both salt and light operate by associating with the thing that they want to change. Salt cannot improve the food unless it goes into the food and changes it from within. Light cannot show the way unless it encounters the darkness. Sometimes Christians think that the way to go is to keep away from getting involved with society and popular culture. But by shying away from the realities of our society and our world we might indeed be hiding our lamp under the bushel basket. To make a difference we must get up and get involved.
Today’s gospel is frightening. It says, in effect, that if there is so much darkness and bitterness in the world today it is because we as Christians have failed in our job to be salt and light in the world. But we can decide to make a difference starting from today. We can decide to light a candle rather than curse the darkness. Even the smallest candle helps in a world of darkness.
- Fr. Munachi Ezeogu, CSSP