SALT AND LIGHT – Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A; Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A (RC)

February 5, 2023

Revised Common Lectionary
Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12)
Psalm 112:1-9 (10)
1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16)
Matthew 5:13-20

Lectionary for Mass (RC)
Isaiah 58:7-10
Psalm 112:4-5, 6-7, 8-9 (4a)
1 Corinthians 2:1-5
Matthew 5:13-16

Salt and light are so much a part of our everyday experience that we take them for granted most of the time. Yet they make a big difference. When they’re not there, we take notice.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus begins his first sermon—the well-known Sermon on the Mount—by naming as blessed the poor, the lowly, the peacemakers, the justice seekers, and others who lack power or prestige. At the conclusion of these Beatitudes, he turns to his disciples gathered around him, and declares, “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world.”

Did you notice that Jesus did not say, “You will be salt and light” or “You should be salt and light.” No, blessed ones, we are already salt for the earth and light for the world. You, the blessed, you who know your dependence on God—you are even now bringing about transformation in the world.

These two sayings of Jesus are so very familiar to us, and yet if you’re anything like me, you may find them challenging. How, we wonder, can we be salt and light? What do we need to do? Listen carefully to his words: Jesus is not so much calling us to begin a project or a plan of action as simply to embrace who we are.

Think about it. When you are served a dish that has been flavored with salt, you don’t see the salt, and yet the taste of the food is transformed by it. The salt doesn’t do anything, but its unseen interaction with other ingredients makes a difference from within the food.

Light doesn’t normally act on things around us, but without it we wouldn’t be able to see them clearly. Sometimes when I’m trying to read in a dimly lit room, I remember how my mother would become just a little exasperated, flip on the light switch, and say, “Throw a little light on the subject.” Without light we may be unaware of objects that are just inches away. Light makes a difference from the outside rather than from the inside, as salt does.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the blessed ones that by their mere presence in the world, much like salt, they are making a difference from within society, subverting the powerful and self-satisfied. Likewise, the lives of the blessed sometimes shine the harsh light of truth that allows us to see beyond mere appearances and challenges disinformation that keeps down the poor and lowly.

We don’t become blessed by working at it; rather, when we embrace our place among the poor and lowly, when we commit ourselves to God’s reign of justice and peace, then we produce the works that reveal the reign of God. Our deeds give concrete expression to our identity as blessed ones. We become salt and light in the world. Jesus puts it this way: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Mt 5:16).

When we embrace blessedness in the way that Jesus describes it in the Beatitudes, we are living the vision that Isaiah speaks of today’s Hebrew Scripture reading: sharing bread with the hungry, bringing the homeless poor into our homes, clothing the naked, refraining from finger pointing and sniping, becoming “repairers of the breach” (Is 58:12). These words of Isaiah describe the ways that our light shines in the darkness.

Blessed ones, let us make a difference by being who we are—spreading our saltiness among the people we meet each day and letting our light shine brightly.

A Hymn for Today: “This Little Light of Mine”

The origins of this song are unclear. Some hymnals identify it as a Negro spiritual, while others credit white Michigan music minister Harry Dixon Loes (1895-1965). The first recorded version dates only to 1939, when it was sung by Doris McMurray, an inmate at a Texas prison.

Whatever its origin, it was quickly embraced by African American churches and went on to become one of the primary anthems of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In the face of opposition by forces of white supremacy, it has continued to serve as a highly effective resistance song as protestors join their voices to proclaim a message of light.

The song’s primary image of letting one’s light shine is directly related to today’s Gospel reading, in which Jesus tells his followers that they are “the light of the world” (Mt 5:14) and encourages them to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Mt 5:16). It has appeared in hymnals of many Christian denominations and was even performed in Britain by a Gospel choir at the royal wedding of Harry and Meghan in 2018. Because it makes no direct religious references, “This Little Light of Mine” has also been sung by a number of secular artists.

This little light of mine,
I’m gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine,
I’m gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine,
I’m gonna let it shine,
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

Ev’rywhere I go, . . .

Jesus gave it to me, . . .

Shine, shine, shine, . . .

All in my home, . . .

Text: Unknown (see above). This version from the African American Heritage Hymnal.

Image Credit: Festival of Lights, John August Swanson, 2000

“Word and Song: A Lectionary Reflection” is written by the Executive Director of The Hymn Society, Rev. Dr. Mike McMahon. For his full bio, click here and scroll down to the “staff” section.

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