In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth…. You are the light of the world.” Some context is helpful. Firstly, we might notice that Jesus is speaking to “his disciples” and not to the crowds. He is speaking to those who are willing to listen to his teaching and to follow him. The opening sentence of this chapter says, “Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down HIS DISCIPLES came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them…” So his words are addressed to those who follow him up the mountain, away from the crowds, and who are willing to listen to his teaching. We might well ask ourselves if we are among them.
When Jesus “opens his mouth and teaches” us, what does he say? Just before the place where today’s reading picks up, we have the beatitudes: “blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are those who mourn… blessed are the meek… blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… blessed are the merciful… blessed are the pure in heart… blessed are the peacemakers… blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake… blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account….”
With the beatitudes, I think Jesus is not so much saying that gentle, downtrodden sorts of people are kind of nice, or that they will be alright in the end – as I think we are prone to understand him as saying. I think, rather, that he is giving his disciples a new law. He is saying, in essence, that THIS is how his disciples are to be. This is what “the blessed” are like – these are the characteristics of those who inherit the Kingdom and find themselves in heaven: they are poor in spirit; they mourn; they are meek; they hunger and thirst for righteousness; they are merciful and pure in heart; they are peacemakers – and lastly, within the world they are persecuted and reviled and slandered.
And this brings us to the beginning of today’s Gospel reading. Jesus says that his disciples are “the salt of the earth… the light of the world.”
What it means to be “the light of the world” is perhaps fairly straightforward. In the 4th century, St. Hilary of Poitiers said that, “It is the nature of a light to emit its rays whithersoever it is carried about, and when brought into a house to dispel the darkness of that house. Thus the world, placed beyond the pale of the knowledge of God, was held in the darkness of ignorance, till the light of knowledge was brought to it by the Apostles, and thenceforward the knowledge of God shone bright, and from their small bodies, whithersoever they went about, light is ministered to the darkness.”
Hence those who follow Jesus and listen to his teaching dispel the darkness of the world’s ignorance of God. But understanding this maybe just pushes the question back a step or two. In what does the knowledge of God consist? And thence: what does it mean to be beyond the pale of God’s knowledge? Firstly: whatever the contents of the knowledge of God may be, we may be sure of where this knowledge comes from. Returning to the figures of light and darkness, St. Paul says: “it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ,” (2 Corinthians 4.6). Knowing God means knowing Christ – beholding his face, seeing him as he is.
And to know Christ means to know the one who is truly blessed – the bearer of all blessedness – and consequently the one who, within the world, is poor in spirit, who mourns, who is meek, who hungers and thirsts for righteousness, who is merciful, pure in heart, who comes to make peace, who is reviled and slandered, and persecuted for the sake of righteousness.
Jesus is the one who is all of these things. And so it is Jesus who is the light of the world. And in fact, in John’s Gospel, Jesus says this. He says: “I am the light of the world,” but then he adds: “he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life,” (John 8.12). When we follow Jesus, when we listen to his teaching, when we become his disciples, we have the light of life. And so, from today’s reading, Jesus says: “YOU are the light of the world.”
But what does this mean? How do we DO this? How do we become the light of the world? In short, by becoming like him. And more than that: by becoming incorporated into him – so that, with St. Paul, we can say: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me,” (Galatians 2.20). Or, again with St. Paul, from today’s Epistle: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God,” (1 Corinthians 2.2-5).
To be a disciple of Jesus – to listen to his teaching, and to follow him, and to allow the dynamism at work in him to become active within me – this is a radical thing. Radical because it is diametrically opposed to what Paul calls “the spirit of the world” (1 Corinthians 2.12), which urges us to be anything but meek, humble, pure in heart, etc. – and so BLESSED. Fr. Tom Hopko speaks in concrete terms of what this is like for the believer. He says that it means:
total and absolute fidelity to God in all circumstances without exception… trusting God absolutely, [in] all circumstances, without exception. And in the midst of trusting God – and we prove our love for God by our trust for God, our obedience to God… – this love of god in all circumstances is to have, as the content of one’s life, only the wisdom and the power of God, and not any earthly wisdom, and certainly not any earthly power. And the wisdom and the power of god is the power of love.
[And] This is what love is: constant mercy, constant forgiveness, no condemnation of anyone for anything… not giving-in in the least way to evil by evil, and enduring, even unto death, even unto a horrid death on the cross, anything that the evil could produce, without producing the evil in return. (From Fr. Hopko’s talk called “The Word of the Cross”)
Being a disciple of Jesus means living this way. And realizing this should illuminate the degree to which we fail to live this way, and so of our need for penance. But lives lived like this illuminate the darkness of the world’s alternative system – of power and control and money and self-gratification and the like. And when the world’s alternative system becomes illuminated by the way of Christ, it becomes visible for what it is: a bankrupt system of lies that leads to destruction and death.
But Jesus not only said that disciples are the light of the world, illuminating the darkness of the world’s ignorance of God and of his way; but he also said that his disciples are the “salt of the earth”. St. Hilary of Poitiers (again) says that salt, “used as it is by men for almost every purpose, preserves from decay those bodies which are sprinkled with it…” And this, evidently, was the primary use of salt in the time of Jesus – not to season food, but to preserve meat from rotting and being destroyed.
Understanding this shows the importance of the vocation of each and every one of us, as a disciple of Jesus. When we follow him, we become the “salt of the earth” – the means by which the earth is preserved from rot and destruction. And not in a general way, but within our particular circumstances. Constant mercy, constant forgiveness, never returning evil for evil, creates an obstacle beyond which the world’s contagion cannot pass. The darkness and unanimous violence of the world expends itself in the body of Christ, the righteous one, beyond whom it can go no further. And not only this, but Christ’s righteous suffering provides his disciples with a model by means of which his work is extended all over the earth. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
This is the wisdom St. Paul says is imparted to the mature – to those prepared for it. “…Not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away.” But rather “a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification,” (1 Corinthians 2.6-7).
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.