February 5, 2017

Homily for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, February 5, 2017, Year A

The Sermon on the Mount
Detail, The Sermon on the Mount, James Tissot, c. 1886-1896.

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Provincial Superior, La Salette Missionaries of North America
Hartford, Connecticut

(Click here for today’s readings)

Jesus conjures up two images in today’s famous Gospel passage that, on the surface, do not make sense. One is obvious: you wouldn’t light a lamp and then hide it. What would be the point?

The other is the idea that salt could lose its flavor. That doesn’t make sense, either. Sodium chloride is a chemical compound. It’s either sodium chloride or it isn’t. Various explanations have been offered to explain why Jesus would say such a thing. Here is mine.

Both images imply the word “suppose.” For example, suppose that in a storm you lost power and someone lit a hurricane lantern and then put it in a closet and closed the door. That would be foolish.

Suppose salt could lose its flavor. For example, if someone puts salt and sugar in the same container, the salt, for all practical purposes, would lose its taste. That would be a foolish thing to do. Both salt and sugar would become useless.

St. Paul says a strange thing, too, namely that he prefers foolishness to wisdom. Three times in today’s second reading he insists that he does not rely on wisdom in his preaching. In the previous chapter of 1 Corinthians he writes: “Has not God made the wisdom of the world foolish?” and “The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.” Remember that Paul preached the Gospel in a predominantly Greek culture, where wisdom (philosophy) was held in especially high esteem. In his Letter to the Romans he writes: “While claiming to be wise, they (the Greeks) became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of an image of mortal man or of birds or of four-legged animals or of snakes.”

The Greek word Paul uses for foolish is “moros,” which came into the English language eventually as the now politically incorrect word “moron.”

It’s a funny thing. Jesus uses the same word as Paul, “foolish,” in this Gospel. Where? About the salt! The same Greek word meaning foolish about persons meant “tasteless” in the context of food. “Insipid” might work for both, in the sense of boring, the opposite of exciting.

The reading from Isaiah directs us to the other image: letting our light shine. Twice he says if we devote ourselves to the cause of a just society, then our light will shine. One of the most brilliant shining examples in our lifetime was Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Both images, salt and light, make me think of first fervor. We get excited about someone or something and we think: it will always be this way. It isn’t necessarily so. Most of 1 Corinthians addresses this issue in one way or another. Remember also the Parable of the Sower, where the seed that fell on shallow, rocky soil, sprang up quickly and then dried up.

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