I have heard that hamburgers from some fast-food restaurants are so loaded with preservatives that you can leave them on a shelf for a year and they will still show no signs of decay. While I don’t know if this is true, and I haven’t taken the time to test this, it is true that a lot of food today has lots of preservatives, so that it can sit for weeks or months before we eat it without rotting. It is so much easier to preserve food now than it has been for most of human history. In the past, especially for people who lived in warmer climates, you had a few choices, depending on what it was: either eat it fresh, or try to find a cool, dry place to store it and expect to lose a lot of it to rot or to animals or insects, or use something like salt to preserve it. So salt was an extremely important commodity and was a big part of human commerce especially in places like Palestine.
Jesus uses this analogy in today’s Gospel, along with the analogy of light. This Gospel is a part of his Sermon on the Mount and immediately follows the Beatitudes which we would have heard last week, except we celebrated the feast of the Presentation instead. In the Beatitudes, Jesus gives his blueprint for Christian living; in today’s Gospel he tells us what our role in this world is. And in doing so, he makes it clear that, as baptized Christians, we do have an important role to play. The gift of baptism, like all gifts, is not just for our own benefit, but for that of others as well.
So Jesus tells us, “You are the salt of the earth,” and, “you are the light of the world.” As I mentioned, salt was hugely important in Israel at the time of Christ. And so was light: in a world without electricity, activity pretty much wrapped up at sundown. Producing light took a lot of work. I have read that nowadays, at the average wage, it costs less than half a second of work to produce an hour of artificial light. In ancient Babylon, admittedly centuries before Christ, it would cost 50 hours of work to produce one hour of artificial light from a sesame oil lamp, but no doubt at the time of Christ, salt and light were both extremely valuable!
So what does it mean then to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world? Salt preserves food from corruption. Using salt in his analogy, Jesus is urging us to avoid corruption. And it is sin that corrupts; it bruises and damages the world we live in. We, then, are called to live our lives in such a way as to resist this corruption of sin. If we follow Christ, if we struggle to do the right thing, to seek mastery over our bad habits and sinful tendencies, if we open our hearts to Christ to let him transform us, then we will act as a preservative agent in the world, helping to keep the corruption of sin at bay in ourselves and even in the world around us.
And light dispels darkness; it helps people see what is around them and before them; it helps them to walk without stumbling; it can reveal dangers that were hidden by the darkness, so that we might avoid them or protect ourselves from them. When we follow Christ, we become a light that dispels the darkness in this world. This light will then help others to find their way and to avoid and protect themselves from hidden dangers. And the more we let Christ transform us, the greater that light becomes. If we light a match in a dark room, we can see a little bit. But if we flip a switch, we can light the whole room. And so it is with us. The more we let Christ transform us, both as individuals and as a Church, the greater that light will be, the more it will illumine the darkness in this world, and more people will be able to see the true path.
So how do we fulfill these roles that Jesus has given us? Our reading from Isaiah gives us some ideas: share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless, clothe the naked, and do not turn your back on your own. In other words, we are called to put our faith into action through works of mercy and of charity. And opportunities abound. Here at St. Luke’s, there are numerous ways to help: giving to the weekly offertory, the annual CSA, various second collections throughout the year to benefit retired sisters and priests and Catholic Relief Services among others, the upcoming diocesan capital campaign to fund the education of our seminarians. We have our parish food pantry, campus ministry, pastoral care for the homebound, religious education for our young people. Our Knights of Columbus have various projects that support our students and the Allendale community. We recently had an event to support pregnancy resource centers. There are so many opportunities to serve and needs to fulfill even right here in our parish and in our community. Where there is suffering and sadness, where people lack basic necessities, that is where we are called to serve. Those are the needs we are called to fill. Every nation, every society, has its holes to be filled and its wounds to be healed.
A couple points I would like to make about this. First, where do we begin? It can be easy to get overwhelmed, or to feel that the problems are so great and so far beyond us that there’s nothing we can do to help. Apathy can set in. We have to resist this. First, because we have our mandate from Jesus that this is what we must do. And second, because it is a temptation of the devil to try to convince us that the problems are too big for us that we shouldn’t even bother. No, we cannot solve the world’s problems. We won’t be able to make this world perfect. Nor will we be able to help every cause, however worthy they may be. Jesus does not call us to do that. He calls us to do what we can, to do our part. And so we can and should begin at home. Saint Teresa of Calcutta said that Calcutta – a metaphor for human suffering – was everywhere, even in one’s own home. She also spoke of “the power of one” – that is, loving and serving the person in front of you, whether that is your spouse, child, parent, friend, co-worker, classmate, the cashier at the checkout, and so on. And we can serve them with something as simple as a smile, taking time to speak with them and listen to them. Don’t put the burden on yourself that every encounter has to be life-changing. But if we share Christ’s love, each encounter can be life-giving.
A second point I’d like to make is that, while we should begin at home, we must avoid the pitfall of becoming insular in our thinking, of creating an us-and-them dichotomy: some people qualify for my help, others don’t. What I do not mean by this is thinking that we have to solve everyone’s problems and fulfill everyone’s needs: that is a prescription for becoming overwhelmed and then giving up. Rather, we are called to prayerfully reflect on whom God might be calling us to serve without limiting our range of vision. We are living in a world that is interconnected like never before and will probably always be that way from now on. Our concern should not stop at the boundaries of our parish or our city or our nation. Jesus says, “You are the light of the world!” Governments have the right to debate their role in the world and to find the right balance between their citizens and their global responsibilities. And we can certainly involve ourselves in this process – that’s fine. However, as a Church, our faith tells us that our responsibility to others do not stop at a border. The apostles did not stop at the borders of their day when spreading the Gospel. And while our primary responsibility is to our family, our community, our nation, these responsibilities should not serve as a pretext not to serve anyone else.
What is the point of being salt and light to the world? We don’t serve others for the sake of keeping busy or to feel good about ourselves. And we know that we are incapable of solving all the world’s problems and making a perfect world. So is there a goal, and what is it? The Gospel tells us that we must be salt and light to the world so that others may see our good deeds and give glory to our heavenly Father.
Everything we do ought to be the greater glory of God, not for our own glory. We serve others, we let Christ transform us, so that others might be attracted to the Gospel by how we live our lives. So that they will themselves then be led to Christ, so that one day we may all give glory to God for all eternity. That is our role in this world, and that is our prayer today.