Sunday, February 9, 2014

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Salt and Light

Is 58:7-10
Ps 112:4-5, 6-7, 8-9
1 Cor 2:1-5
Mt 5:13-16

There is something missing from the first reading.  That something is the first six verses of chapter 58 of the Book of Isaiah.  Those beginning verses put the reading we just heard into context.  In the missing verses the prophet Isaiah is denouncing the people.  He is not denouncing them because they had assumed and adopted pagan customs and practices but because they performed their own religious practices, such as fasting and penance, insincerely and hypocritically.

The Jewish Study Bible makes an interesting comment on the background for this reading.  The people observed rituals such as fasting not out of true devotion but for their own benefit.  People prayed for divine intervention in their quarrels against each other. The prophet is denouncing the people because they fasted and did penance so as to manipulate God, as if that were possible.  The verses we heard here make more sense with this background.  Isaiah is instructing the people about what a true fast means.  True fasting is not starving one's body.  That's dieting.  True fasting means sharing what one has with others and thus having less for oneself.  Humility is not sitting in sackcloth and ashes looking pathetic for all who pass by.  True humility means a desire for justice.  True humility includes compassion toward those who suffer.  With Ash Wednesday just a few weeks away we would do well to come back to this reading. It gives good instruction for how we are called to observe Lent. 

"You are the salt of the earth.  But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?"

Jesus' image of 'the salt of the earth' is part of common English usage.  It is a compliment to the person who is described that way.  As used in colloquial English 'salt of the earth' means a good or worthy person who places the needs of others first.  It implies actions free of underhanded dealings and devious behaviors that ultimately benefit the self.    But salt is tricky.  It is not always a blessing.  

On one hand salt purifies and preserves food.  That is an important use even today.  It adds exquisite flavor to food.  Unsalted pretzels, for example, are an abomination.  But add a few grains of salt and flavor explodes.  On the other hand salt can also poison.  Watering plants with salt water will kill them.  Too much salt in the diet can result in high blood pressure, congestive heart failure and a generalized feeling of bloat. 

Jesus' sayings about salt are not easy to understand.  I was bothered for years by the words, "If salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?"  How can salt lose its taste?  That was always a problem in my mind.  But it wasn't a problem only because of Jesus' saying.   Part of the problem was my grandmother.

Grandma, who lived four blocks away, came to dinner every Sunday.  Almost every week she would announce, "They don't make salt as salty as they used to."  Even when I was sixteen it didn't make sense though I didn't know why.  By the time I was in my thirties, after years studying biology, chemistry, and human physiology, my mom began saying the same thing.  Generally she would make the announcement while shaking salt over the potatoes that I had just cooked at my house.  "You didn't add enough salt.  And remember, they don't make it as salty as they used to." (OK Jack, count to ten.  She is your mother). 

There is an explanation for salt seeming to lose its flavor. It is not because of the salt.  It is our fault.  Salt is as salty as it has always been.  But, as we age our ability to detect and taste salt on the tongue diminishes dramatically.  What seems to be salted just right to someone who is 85 may be experienced as very salty to someone 35.

Jesus is the light of the world.  Jesus is also the salt of the earth who preserves, purifies, and protects us just as salt preserves food and protects it from contamination.  We cannot afford to lose our taste for that salt.  We cannot allow our taste for the Word of God to diminish as we age. 

While it is never a good idea to shake too much salt on the mashed potatoes, we can never take in enough of the Word of God.  We can never get enough of the salt of the earth or the salt TO the earth that is Jesus and his life.  Paul prayed in the second reading, " . . . so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God."  That power of God is light for the world and salt for the earth.  May we never lose sight of that light.  May our faith never be low salt.

Very busy week with more of the same coming.  Fr. Dan Harrington, SJ, one of the world's greatest New Testament scholars died on Saturday here at Campion.  He came after dealing with cancer for four years.  In the early autumn it became apparent that he could not get the care he needed in a busy community at the school so he came out here.  He will be very missed by the faculty, students, and the world of New Testament scholarship in general.  He was my thesis adviser at Weston Jesuit School of Theology when it was still in Harvard Square.  He was a passionate sports fan.  Every Monday during football season he would have some  comment on the Penn State game of the previous Saturday.  Very nice man who wore his considerable learning and erudition lightly, never using it like a club to beat others who were less accomplished into submission.  This is a rare trait among academics.  

The photos are all the same subject.  One of the men had some orchids in his room.  I had the camera when I passed by.  The shots didn't come out of the camera looking all that great.  Wretched wall color in the room for starters along with very poor light.  After a lot of post-processing (not with Photoshop) I was happy with the results.  

The first photo is an 'out of the camera.'  Not very good by any stretch.  This is the sort of thing that an amateur could not have corrected in the past. 

Same photo after about 20 minutes of adjustment. 

A friend wondered how it would look in black and white.  I'm not sure about this one.   Added a few 'buds' to cover the supporting stick on the left.  That part looks much better in black and white than it did in color. 

The final three are different shots all of which were similarly manipulated in the Aperture 3 program. 

 +Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

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