Here is an edited-down form of a homily I gave for the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time in 2011.
What would our lives be like without salt? Apart from those who are on a special restricted diet, most of us use salt all the time, and probably too much of it. I know people who habitually salt their food before they even taste it, the idea being: Why wouldn’t you use salt? In the ancient world salt was a very important commodity – used as a preservative, since refrigeration and other safe types of food storage that we now have did not exist, and it was also used for flavoring. It was even used as a form of payment, especially of taxes! So when Jesus said to the people during his Sermon on the Mount, “You are the salt of the earth”, he got their attention, much as he would have gotten our attention today. Salt was important then; it is important now.
He also spoke about light, and also captured the crowd’s attention with that image. In a world without electricity, once the sun went down, that was it – pitch black. To spend any time outside at night, a torch was necessary. To do anything inside, candles or oil lamps. Maybe you’ve had the opportunity to go camping in the wilderness before, or otherwise be in a very remote place – someplace far away from the “light pollution” of towns and cities – and have had some experience of the deep darkness that exists at night in a world without electric lights. For us, such an experience can be either refreshing, or a bit scary, depending, I suppose, on how safe we feel in the dark. For the people then, it was ordinary life. And so when Christ said, “You are the light of the world”, their interest was piqued.
The risk that we run upon hearing this gospel in our own time is that of thinking that the Lord is calling us to some sort of worldly greatness. The terms “salt of the earth” and “light of the world” carry a certain weight with them, perhaps giving the impression that we are being called to notoriety or fame. Don’t get me wrong, Christ is calling us to greatness; but greatness is not the same thing as fame. Think of a Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, who distinguished herself by doing small things well; think of a Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, a man of prayer, who simply got involved in his community and his circle of friends, and took social action where he could; saints and holy people like these show us the way to do what we can, but do it well, and so have an effect in the world. Because the truth is, it often only takes a pinch of salt to transform the flavor of a meal. It only takes a single, small candle to cut through deep darkness and open up the possibility for sight. For the majority of us, Jesus is calling us to be that pinch of salt, or that small candle, doing what we can with his help.
The Church, in her wisdom, gives us a first reading this week that helps us to make a concrete application of our calling to be salt and light. The prophet Isaiah proclaims, “Share your bread with the hungry; shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them; and do not turn your back on your own. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn…”. If you remember your catechism, these are some of what we call the “Corporal Works of Mercy”, of which there are seven in all. There are also the seven “Spiritual Works of Mercy”. It would be a good idea for all of us to dust off our catechisms, or at least get on Google, and look these up. And then to consider how we apply them in our own lives, or if we apply them; chances are high that there are areas where we all have room for growth. These fourteen principles in all operate on the gospel premise that if we show mercy we will be shown mercy, and they help us to focus in concrete ways our task of loving our neighbor as ourselves. If we strive to practice the works of mercy, we will make a difference in the world – we will be the “salt” and “light” that the Lord Jesus calls us to be.
The Lord calls us to greatness – not to mediocrity or the status quo. But in our heart of hearts, do we really desire anything less than greatness? The spirit is willing, but sometimes the flesh is weak. That is why the priest must preach every week; that is why he must also listen to his own words. Those who show mercy will receive mercy. Those who show mercy make the world a more savory place. Those who show mercy dispel the spiritual darkness that surrounds us. Merciful Lord Jesus, help us to answer your call! Amen.