Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Isaiah 58:7-10; Psalm 112:4-5, 6-7, 8-9; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; Matthew 5:13-16
Among the prophetic oracles editors gathered for inclusion in the Book of Isaiah are those attributed to a prophet unknown by name but called “Trito-Isaiah or Third Isaiah.” His words are found in chapters 56-66. The setting is Jerusalem. The people of Judea had been returning from their exile in Babylon (Iraq today) since the Persians under King Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon about 539 B.C. Most exiles remained in Babylon, finding a new involvement in economic, civic and religious life. The temple of the Lord in Jerusalem had been rebuilt by those who returned from exile after King Cyrus’ Edict of Return ended their exile. The time of the Oracles of Third Isaiah is approximately 515 B.C.
The context of today’s reading is the prophet’s call for fasting, though not the kind of fasting the people of Jerusalem were doing. He accuses them of hypocrisy because their fasting is only external accompanied by ashes and sackcloth. That kind of fasting, says the prophet, is not what the Lord seeks. Here is what he seeks: sharing food with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless, clothing the naked, caring for one’s family, abstaining from false accusations and evil speech. This kind of “fasting” sounds familiar. Why? Because this and other oracles from the prophets served as background for the catechetical teaching of the corporal works of mercy. Besides that, these particular oracles of Isaiah are echoed in the Beatitudes and in Jesus’ final sermon in the Gospel of Matthew. Familiar indeed: “When I was hungry, etc. To those who do these works of mercy, Jesus promises, “Enter into the kingdom prepared for you by my Father.” Not so different from the promises attached to Third Isaiah’s recommended “fasting,” “Your light will break forth like the dawn. Your wound shall quickly be healed. You shall call and the Lord will answer, and will say, ‘Here I am.’”
The Responsorial Psalm 112 picks up the theme of light which is promised by Third Isaiah to those who do the kind of fasting sought by the Lord. “Light shines in the darkness for the upright, because he is gracious and acts with justice. He is solid and can never be shaken by some evil report. His heart is steadfast as he gives generously to the poor.” Then the ever quint closing, “His horn shall be exalted.” Meaning: in the Old Testament a “horn” is a symbol of honor and the power that comes to the one who is honored because of his great generosity. What or who is the source of this honor? God!
The second reading continues a series of second readings from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. This section can be understood as Paul’s defense of his method of preaching. We know he was criticized by some at Corinth for his manner of speaking and acting, even for his physical looks and presence. Details in 2 Corinthians 10:10; 11:21, 29; 12:10. What may have seemed like weakness to the Corinthians was his weakness in Christ crucified, which was actually the source of Christ’s strength and Paul’s strength. He defends his vocabulary. It was not the vocabulary of a philosopher, just plain speaking accompanied by the Holy Spirit and the power which flowed from that accompaniment. He wants the faith of his converts to rest not on human wisdom, but on the power of God. He seems to say that his preaching was accompanied by miracles of healing. In Acts of Apostles Luke bears witness to Paul’s miracles.
The gospel reading continues a series from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Immediately after Matthew’s version of Jesus’ beatitudes, he uses three metaphors to describe genuine Christians: salt of the earth; light of the world; a city on a hill. When we consider that in the Gospel of John Jesus calls himself the light of the world, life as a Christian is the true “Imitation of Christ.” Jesus (or Matthew) does not approve of “private” Christianity, “People do not light a lamp to be placed under a cover,” so that none can benefit from the light. In the same way, a city on a hill cannot be hidden. It is there for all to see. It is quite possible that Jesus had in mind the city of Jerusalem. Pilgrims from Galilee in the north to Judea in the south would travel along the route east of the Jordan. They would cross the Jordan, ascend the eastern slope of the Mt. of Olives. As they reached the top of the Mt. of Olives, Jerusalem and especially the temple, appeared in shining splendor. Thus the life of a Christian should stand out as light in a room and as a city on a hill. “So let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and glorify your heavenly Father,“ Matthew 5:16.
Salt of the earth. Salt permeates our civilization, which in fact grew around salt deposits. Quest for salt pushed ships onto the sea and camel caravans into deserts. According to Marco Polo, (died 1324), Tibetans used salt cakes as money. German tribes waged war over salt deposits, according to Roman historian Tacitus (died 117 A.D.). In our own fratricidal war generals of the North first targeted the South’s salt production facilities. Why? Salt was used to maintain health, preserve meat, tan leather. Battles were fought at Saltville, VA over control of salt. After the North captured the South’s salt deposits, Jefferson Davis offered immunity from military service for anyone who would set up salt kettles along the coast to boil down seawater for salt. Ghandi began his independence from Britain movement in a 200-mile march to the sea to protest the salt tax and Britain’s prohibition against making one’s own salt from seawater. A “covenant of salt” was a treaty followed by sharing a meal between the two agreeing to the treaty and such a covenant was absolutely binding. See 2 Chronicles 13:5. So what does it mean when Jesus says to his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth?” The witness of a Christian life is as important to civilization as salt is to life on earth.