Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A



Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

First Reading: Isaiah 58:7-10; Response: Psalm 112:4-5, 6-7, 8-9; Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; Gospel" Matthew 5:13-16

Chapters 1-39 of Isaiah the Prophet are an editorial collection of the oracles (prophetic chantings), experiences of Isaiah of Jerusalem and editorial comments. His ministry was centered in Jerusalem from 742 B.C into the 680s B.C. He is not our concern here. Chapters 40-55 present us with the oracles and experiences of Deutero-Isaiah (Second-Isaiah). The Lord sends him to the exiles of Israel to Babylon circa 540 B.C. Neither is he our concern here. The oracles and experiences of a third prophet were added in chapters 56-66. He is called Trito-Isaiah (Third-Isaiah). We are back in the city of Jerusalem about 515 B.C., roughly 25 years after the return from the Babylonian exile.

As chapter 58 opens, the Lord commands the prophet, “Shout for all you are worth. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Proclaim their faults to my people . . . .” The Lord indicts his people with these accusations. They are reproaching him, “Why should we fast if you never see it? Why do penance if you never notice?” The Lord answers because, “You work on fast-days. You oppress your workers. You quarrel and argue when you fast. You strike the poor with your fist. That kind of fasting will get you nowhere. Fast-days like that do not please me at all. Hanging your head and wearing sackcloth and ashes — you call that fasting?” Such is the setting of the prophet’s words as we enter our first reading. The reading describes the kind of fasting the Lord expects. It sounds remarkably like the beatitudes of last Sunday’s gospel reading and the corporal works of mercy. Feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked. Do not turn your back on your own people.

The Lord recognizes that his human children need incentive. Therefore, he says, if they do this kind of fasting, here are the rewards. Their light will break forth like dawn. Their wounds will be healed. The glory of the Lord will be their rear guard. If they call, the Lord will answer. If they cry for help, he will say, “Here I am!”

Psalm 112 was selected to respond to the first reading because of praises similar to those the reading from Isaiah heaps upon the person who does justice to those in need. The people’s response sums it up: “Light shines in the darkness for the upright.” Such a person will never be moved; will be remembered eternally; does not need to be afraid of slander; his heart (intentions, inclinations) are well-directed. The quaint ending may need some explanation, “His horn shall be exalted in glory.” In the Old Testament, an animal’s horns are symbols of power.” In other words, the power (influence) one accrues by doing justice “will endure forever.”

In the second reading, St. Paul defends the method and content of his preaching to the Corinthians. Obviously, he was attacked on these issues. Here, in italics, is a paraphrase of Paul’s response to his critics.

You are right. I am not an orator using philosophical language — the kind of talk on which some Greeks pride themselves. I had made up my mind to know (and proclaim) nothing but a crucified Christ. It is true — I am not much to look at; just weak, frightened, trembling.

Paul is overdoing his negative depiction of himself. We know from his letters on other occasions that he was not always so modest about his abilities. In fact, the end of our reading is more like the real Paul, again in italics as a paraphrase. “My words were not with philosophical reasoning, but don’t forget my demonstration of the Spirit and power.”

Probably refers to miracles of healing God worked through him. The real reason why his words were simple and his appearance unimpressive? “So that your faith will not rest on human wisdom, but on the power of God.”

Today’s gospel reading follows immediately upon the nine beatitudes (blessings) of last Sunday’s gospel. Matthew’s arrangement of material seems to mean that, if Christians live the beatitudes, they will be “the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a city that cannot avoid being seen because it is built on a mountain.” Let’s consider the three metaphors in reverse. In the intention of Jesus (or Matthew), the city on the hill is probably Jerusalem. It had been built on a high elevation to make it defensible. Closer to home, we think of two locations as a site or sight that cannot be hidden — the Monastery Immaculate Conception at Ferdinand, and St. Meinrad Archabbey at St. Meinrad. We may recall that, in the Gospel of John 8:12 and 9:8, Jesus says of himself, “I am the light of the world.” In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mountain, Jesus offers to share that majestic title with us. At the end of today’s gospel reading, Jesus (and Matthew) elaborate on Christians as the light of the world. “Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”

Christians as salt of the earth. Salt permeates civilization, which in fact grew around salt deposits. The quest for salt pushed ships onto the sea and caravans into deserts. According to Marco Polo (died 1324), Tibetans used salt cakes as money. According to the Roman historian Tacitus (died 117), German tribes waged war over salt deposits. In our own (Un) Civil War, generals of the North first targeted the South’s salt deposit production facilities. Why? Salt was used to maintain health, preserve meat and tan leather. Battles were fought at Saltville, Virginia, over control of salt. After the North captured the South’s salt deposits, President Jefferson Davis offered immunity from military service for men who would set up salt kettles along the coast to boil down seawater for salt. Ghandi began his movement for independence from Britain in a 200-mile march to the sea to protest the salt tax and British prohibition against making one’s own salt from seawater. Biblically speaking, a covenant of salt was a treaty followed by sharing a meal between the parties to the treaty. Such a covenant was absolutely binding (See 2 Chronicles 13:5-7). What does it mean, therefore, when Jesus speaks of Christians as salt of the earth? The witness of a Christian life is as important to civilization as salt is important to life on earth.