Salt, City on a Hill, Light
The readings for Sunday, February 9, 2014, Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A, are
Isaiah 58:7-10; Corinthians 2:1-5; and Matthew 5:13-16.
Isaiah: This reading is one of the many parts of Isaiah that find echoes in our gospels. This is why the prophet Isaiah is sometimes referred to as the Fifth Evangelist. One can hardly doubt that such texts not only influenced the preaching of Jesus but also influenced the composition of our gospels. We hear from Isaiah about sharing bread with the hungry, clothing the poor, taking care of one’s own. A reward is promised: “Then light will rise in front of you in the darkness, and the gloom will become for you like midday.”
1 Corinthians: Paul defends his new style of preaching. He had tried philosophy at Athens and failed. Now he preaches Christ crucified, symbol of weakness as Paul himself was, but accompanied with the power of the Holy Spirit.
Matthew: Today’s gospel reading from the Sermon on the Mount uses three symbols or metaphors to describe a Christian or a Christian way of life — salt, a city on a hill, and light. Matthew attributes these words to Jesus speaking to his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned.” Why is salt an appropriate symbol for a Christian or for Christian way of life? We cannot live without salt. It runs through our language. It courses through our blood vessels. We use salt to make food taste better, to preserve food, to melt ice. All these uses can even be understood in a spiritual sense.
Civilization grew around salt deposits in Africa, China India. The Mideast quest for salt pushed ships into the Mediterranean Sea and pushed camel caravans into deserts. Marco Polo, 1254-1324, noted that Tibetans used salt cakes as money. The Roman historian Tacitus, first century, writes that German tribes waged war over control of salt deposits. In our own Civil War, northern generals targeted the South’s salt production facilities at Saltville, Virginia. Salt was used to maintain the health of troops, preserve food, and tan leather. Julius Caesar, who died 44 B.C., always had salinators (saltmakers) accompany his armies to make salt for the troops. Ghandi started resistance to British rule in India by leading a 200 mile march to the sea to boil down seawater for salt as a protest against the British tax on salt in India.
The banquets that usually followed the signing of treaties were called an “exchange of salt”. “To exchange salt” was a guarantee of peace. Arabs made peace with the express-ion, “There is salt between us.” Even our English language recognizes the importance of salt in words like “salutary, salvation, salary.” Spilling salt was thought to bring bad luck. The connection between salt and bad luck may originate from the story of Mrs. Lot whose curiosity caused her to disobey the divine command and look back. Her penalty: she turned into a pillar of salt. The same idea may be behind Da Vinci painting a spilled salt shaker in front of Judas in his Last Supper masterpiece
A second metaphor or symbol for Christians and Christianity in today’s gospel is a city on a hill. The Matthean Jesus says, “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” Behind this metaphor stands the city of Jerusalem built on Mt. Zion and especially the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. The building material was white limestone, thus making it all the more visible as it gleamed in sunshine. The top of the temple was covered with sharp golden spikes. We can only imagine how the white and the gold reflected the sun and drew all eyes as people thronged to Jerusalem for the great pilgrimage festivals
Light is the third metaphor for Christians and Christian life in today’s gospel. Matthew attributes to Jesus these words, “You are the light of the world. People do not light a lamp and put it under a bushel basket. It is set on a lampstand where it gives light to all in the house. So must your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” Summing up these three symbols of today’s gospel: As salt is necessary to the good health of an individual, to society, and to civilization, as a city or castle on a hill leaps into view, as light is necessary for our life, warmth, health — so must Christian life and every Christian be to society and to civilization, “that they may see your good works and give glory to your heavenly Father.”