5th Sunday in Ordinary Time • Is 58:1–9a • 1 Cor 2:1–12 • Mt 5:13–20 • February 5, 2023
Some of my teachers have dazzled me, knowing just how to spark connections in their hearers, even when they were clearly improvising. Decades ago, I was so intrigued that I asked a few of them what method or formula they used. There was none. It seemed like pure magic.
I was once equally dazzled by retreat leaders who were visibly relying on guidance beyond the reach of any script. They had a general framework, but it left plenty of room for choices, and they seemed to just listen and pluck exactly the right choice out of the air, again and again. It was like seeing people standing at a 45-degree angle and not falling.
This, to me, is what it means to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory” to God. Witnessing these leaders and teachers made palpable for me the work of an agency outside of ordinary human capacity. They made me a believer; they were my introduction to the Holy Spirit.
Because I’ve been teaching since my teens, these experiences spoke my language. But Isaiah describes a more universal language: “to loosen the bonds of injustice, to share your bread with the hungry,” to shelter those without homes. Many of you do this work to an extent that dazzles me and witnesses to the work of the Spirit in you.
These words about letting your light shine and staying salty come right after the last and most alarming of the Beatitudes, the one that says: Blessed are you when people persecute and slander you on My account, for this is how they treated the prophets before you. The implication is that letting our light shine and our salt season things can be risky. What were the risks in Matthew’s time, and what are they now?
The community for which Matthew wrote lived on the cusp of the separation between Christianity and its Jewish cradle. In the devastating war of 66–70 CE, the Roman occupiers had destroyed the Temple, which had been the social and ritual center of Jewish identity and practice. Jews differed on what should now define Judaism, forming various rival groups. For the scribes and Pharisees, who came to dominate, the Law was now the key focus of Jewish identity. They had harsh words and penalties for dishonoring the Law.
However, there were also people, still identified as Jews, who believed that the teachings of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit offered the most authentic way forward for Judaism. The details of the Law were less central to their faith, and they had begun to make adaptations to it.
These Jewish followers of Jesus seemed to face a no-win choice. They could rebel against the Pharisees’ harsh and sometimes hypocritical enforcement of the Law, thus inviting persecution. Or they could obey the Law slavishly, hiding their light—the gift of the Holy Spirit—under a bushel basket, with their discipleship essentially invisible.
The teaching about salt and light and the whole section that follows can be seen as offering a third option, a creative response to a stronger adversary that Walter Wink called the Third Way. Although it is non-violent and premised on love of one’s adversaries, it is far from safe or passive and can require great courage. Think Gandhi or King.
It involves steadfastly asserting and embodying one’s own dignity and commitments without attacking or dehumanizing those who try to interfere. In Matthew’s context, the disciples could actively embody the Spirit that gave rise to each part of the Law, going beyond legal requirements in ways that would hold up an uncomfortable mirror to tyrannical enforcers.
Wink spells out how this could work, though his focus is on the Jews’ relationship with their Roman oppressors. The point in relation to the Pharisees would not be to overthrow the Law but to prevent it from becoming an idol, to redirect attention to its divine source and end. Harsh treatment from angry Pharisees might still follow, but the disciples’ integrity would be intact both as disciples and as Jews, at least in their own eyes. The power of the Holy Spirit, shining in their courage, might even inspire some Pharisees to consider joining them.
In bringing his message to the Corinthians, Paul also took a deliberate chance. Instead of relying on normal human strategies for persuasion, such as skillful rhetoric or a show of force, Paul reports avoiding “lofty words” and allowing his weakness to show, trusting a risky, upside-down, divine wisdom that he connects with Christ crucified and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Though I don’t know what he did, I think again of my dazzling teachers and what I ultimately learned from them. Once I’ve laid the foundation of thorough prep and planning, my best teaching happens when I jump off the high dive of my plans into unscripted exchanges with the students, listening very hard for what’s needed and trusting in what comes through. This can be exhilarating. It’s also scary and not immune to belly flops. I consider that kind of leap, listening, obedience, and the graced encounters that can follow to be a small example of personal participation in the risky, upside-down wisdom of crucifixion and resurrection into which Paul is inviting us. What might your version look like? It’s not a quid pro quo that I can manipulate. Nothing I do or don’t do will reliably buy me grace, any more than the fasting and bowing like a bulrush that Isaiah described. The fast God wants, says Isaiah, is to set free those we preferred to control and to share resources at the risk of our own security. We open the door to grace by letting go of something for the sake of others. God’s grace flows to us by flowing through us. Salt and light fulfill their purposes and are most fully themselves, not when they sit on the shelf under a lid, but when they contribute to sharing nourishment and insight. We, too, have been given gifts by the Spirit. When we share them without attempting to control the outcome, our own light shines and gives glory to God.