Sunday, February 6, 2011

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Salt has been on my mind this week.
Not only has it been all over our streets,
melting ice and messing up our cars,
and not only do the new dietary guidelines
released by the federal government
say that we Americans,
in addition to consuming too much fat and sugar,
consume too much salt,
but it is also a central image
in this week’s Gospel reading.

Jesus tells his followers
that they are “the salt of the earth,”
evoking a whole web of associations
that human beings have with salt.
Salt is almost certainly the oldest seasoning
used by the human race:
we have archeological evidence of facilities
for the refining of salt
as early as 6000 BC.
Of course, salt was used for more
than making Neolithic french-fries tastier:
salting was for many centuries
the only way we had to preserve food from decay and corruption.
Salt was, in fact, so valuable
that a wide variety of cultures have used it for religious purposes:
in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome
salt mixed with water was offered to the gods;
in ancient Israel,
salt was included in grain offerings and burnt offerings;
salt was used to purify and to exorcise,
but it also symbolized the table fellowship of a shared meal.

So when Jesus tells his followers
that they are the salt of the earth,
he is, as is the case with any good metaphor,
saying a number of things at the same time.
True disciples give our world its savor;
they are the element preserving the world
from decay and corruption;
they are an offering to God;
they are a foretaste of the day
when humanity will be gathered around the table
in God’s kingdom.

But, having told them that they are salt,
Jesus also warns them:
“if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?
It is no longer good for anything
but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”
If the disciples of Jesus lose their power to season and preserve
then they are useless,
they have no purpose,
and, like salt with no flavor, they will be cast aside.

We ought to be careful here, however.
We cannot simply assume that because we see someone
cast out and trampled underfoot
that he or she is salt that has lost its taste
and become worthless.
Remember that Jesus is saying this
immediately after telling his disciples
“Blessed are they who are persecuted
for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
For Jesus, it is precisely those who,
in the eyes of the world,
have been cast out and trampled underfoot,
who are the true salt of the earth,
who give life its savor,
who preserve the world from decay and corruption.

In our second reading, Paul tells the Corinthians,
“I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling,”
not bringing with him words of human wisdom
but only his faith in Christ crucified,
Christ outcast ,
Christ trampled underfoot.
And it is only in this way
that we can proclaim the Gospel of grace.

This completely turns the logic of the world upside down.
Those whom the world might think of as failures,
who are willing to be persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
are the true salt of the earth
and possessors of the kingdom of heaven.

Earlier this week I saw a remarkable photograph
taken in Cairo’s Tahrir Square,
where anti-government demonstrations in Egypt
have been centered.
A large number of Muslim demonstrators kneel in the square,
performing the prayer that Muslims make five times a day.
They are encircled by a protective perimeter
formed by Coptic Christians
who stand with hands joined to ensure
that their fellow protesters
are not disturbed or attacked as they pray.
These Coptic Christians are a minority in Egypt,
and at times have been persecuted by their fellow Egyptians,
perhaps even by some of the very people they are now protecting.
But, by their actions,
they show themselves willing to look beyond that history
because they recognize the cause of righteousness
and are willing to risk, quite literally,
being cast out and trampled underfoot.

It is by actions such as this that the disciples of Jesus
show themselves to be the salt of the earth,
a light that gives light to all the world.
It is those who fear and flee
the persecution that often accompanies discipleship
who are the salt that has lost its flavor
and must be cast aside.
Saint Augustine wrote that
we should not fear being trampled underfoot in this world
as long as our spirit is rooted in heaven
(The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount 1.6);
For it is our being rooted in God
that allows us to live as Jesus’ disciples,
to embrace the risk of being persecuted for righteousness sake,
and to be the salt that flavors and preserves the world.

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