In the Gospel of this Sunday, Jesus tasks his disciples with the mission to be salt and light to the world. What does this mean? And how do we become salt and light today in the context of our modern world and society?
I always find these metaphors of salt and light fascinating. In the ancient world, salt was highly valued. The Greeks called salt divine, and the Romans said, “There is nothing more useful than sun and salt.” Do you know that our English word “salary” literally means “salt money”? In the time of Jesus, salt was associated with purity, because it was white and it came from the purest of all things, the sun and the sea. That’s why salt was the most primitive of all offerings to the gods. People believed that it was the salt that kept the seas pure. Thus, when Jesus exhorts his disciples to be “the salt of the earth,” he meant that Christians must be an example of purity, exercising purity in speech, in conduct, and even in thought. Salt is still the commonest of all preservatives wherever people do not have fridges and freezers. It is used to prevent the meat, fish, fruits, and pickles from going bad. Thus, as the salt of the earth, Christians must have a certain antiseptic, preserving influence on society, defeating corruption and making it easier for others to be good. In addition, salt lends flavor to food, seasoning it and giving it a richer taste. Through Baptism, our natural life is also “seasoned” with the new, richer life which comes from Christ. Christians therefore must reflect that newness and richness in their lives, and cannot become insipid themselves.
In the time of Jesus, when speaking of the light, what comes to mind is the image of an oil lamp. It was like a sauce-boat full of oil with a wick floating in it. When people went out, for safety’s sake, they took the lamp from its stand and put it under an earthen bushel basket, so that it might burn without risk until they came back. Jesus challenges his disciples to be visible like a lamp on a “lamp stand.” He therefore expects his followers to be seen by the world, radiating and giving light. “Let your light shine before all” (Mt 5:16). By this metaphor, Jesus means that our faith should be visible in the ordinary activities of the world, for example, in the way we treat a cashier across the counter, in the way we order a meal in a restaurant, in the way we treat our employees or serve our employer, in the way we play a game or drive or park a car, in the daily language we use, in the daily literature we read and the websites we visit online, etc.
The teaching of Jesus should make us think today about the quality of our own faith and mission. Is your salt salty and your light shining? If you have any doubt, take this little quiz: 1) Name the five wealthiest people in the world. 2) Name the last five Nobel Prize winners. 3) Name the last five World Series champions. Do you know all these answers? Probably not. Then ask yourself some additional questions: 1) Who fed and clothed you when you were helpless? 2) What was the name of the teacher who patiently taught you? 3) Who is the first person you would call in an emergency? You would know the answers to these questions. Look no further: these people are the salt and light of the world. If you see in yourself right now the positive qualities by which these people have inspired you and made a difference in your life, you can be assured about the quality of your own mission of being salt and light to the world.
Dear brothers and sisters, salt is a hidden but powerful influence. Light is a visible and revealing influence. Jesus calls us to be a humble presence that makes a visible, tangible impact on the world around us. Does your faith make a difference in anyone else’s? In what ways can you make a difference today in the world around you? The answer to these questions depends on how closely we are like Jesus himself, who is the true Salt of the earth and Light of the world.
Devotedly yours in Christ,
Msgr. Cuong M. Pham