Fifth Sunday of the Year
God’s vision is revealed in hidden and unexpected places. We are among the unexpected where God’s vision is unveiled. Jesus continually takes us back to the roots of true religion, our true connection with God which has implications for our engagement/encounter with people and creation. Having lifted up the mostly unlikely people represented as the poor in spirit, the meek and the merciful, those who mourn and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted – we see that living the Beatitudes means being ‘salt of the earth’ and ‘light of the world for the transformation of the earth.
Jesus’ words affirm and challenge. We cannot play small or minimise our impact. One act of love can make a great difference. Each of us has it within us to change our corner of the world and enlighten its dark places. Faith is useless if not about transforming the world.
The Beatitudes reveal God’s heart and the values of the Reign which do not make sense to many in power. Much of the change going on with Pope Francis is indigestible to the neo-liberal economic culture, to an individualistic mentality that cannot accept Catholic social teaching that is integral to the idea of the ‘common good. The emphasis on mercy, on the other hand, violates the ‘law and order’ mentality of the self-appointed guardians of Catholic orthodoxy. God is present but acts through us in a world that can be harsh, cruel and uncaring. It can seem uncaring especially when we do not mourn people who are hurting or find ourselves unable to see beyond the harshness, the darkness and the hardness of paralysing conformity of society.
Jesus’ ‘You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world’ are statements of fact – not ‘you could be, or should be.’ Jesus is using the present tense. We are this NOW. And it all of us together that we are salt, all of us together that we are light. We are implicated. It is not some far-away temple, church, synagogue but each of us already. If we think of salt shakers, they can be short and stubby, long and thin, it does not matter. Each of us can bring the salt to change the world by our being.
Pope Francis has warned that attributing salt and light to many Christians might be misplaced because they present as judgemental, intolerant, superior, rigid, controlling, hard-hearted, hypocritical, looking like sour-pusses, homophobic or misogynist. The church may offer wonderful things, but people need to experience God who embraces humanity if God’s image is not to be hidden. When faith is compartmentalised, according to Isaiah, religion and politics are suspect. He says that our institutional and religious piety cannot save us if we are immune to the cries of the poor and the pain of creation, if our religious practices are not mated with care for the Earth’s most vulnerable. So religion was profoundly political in Isaiah’s time as in ours. It can heal or harm. We need only ask First Nations peoples, women and LGBTIQ+ people. It can restore or destroy. God’s revealing challenges each one of us wherever we are on the political or socio-economic spectrum. There should be no ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ In some way, we have all fallen short and benefited from a system that puts all peoples and the Earth in jeopardy. According to Thomas Merton we are ‘guilty bystanders.’ Yet, we are all filled with the light of God. The written word, legalism, conformity, mere administration and traditionalism, learning certain creeds, signing mission statements or doing specific spiritual exercises alone cannot contribute to the world’s healing or transformation. God’s word must take flesh in each of us – no matter how frail we may be. The light shines through our humanity, our cracks and our frailties.
Today we hear Isaiah again speak of hunger that flows from injustice. This is the second wee in a row and today he is more direct by including a strong comment against insincere worship. The connection between religious ritual (fasting) and acts of justice and mercy calls to mind the quote from John Chrysostom: ‘If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the Church door, you will not find him in the chalice.’ For Isaiah our worship should lead to change of heart and behaviour where we actually see and then care for people in need. More than 820 million people – about 11% of the world population – are hungry.
Isaiah’s exhortation puts flesh on the Beatitudes. He is speaking to the people of hunger: to care for the poor; to ‘share your bread with the hungry,’ to ‘shelter the oppressed and the homeless’ and to ‘clothe the naked when you see them.’ We could add ‘provide security to asylum seekers’ and ‘’a safe place to live’outlined in Matthew 25. For Isaiah, Israel’s transformation will not come about by infrastructure alone but the love expressed for those who are close to God’s heart, the poor. Failure makes our religion and our politics suspect. There are times when we cannot let things continue as they are: neglect of the poor, mistreatment of asylum seekers, violence against women, military spending, etc. We are meant to be agents of change – but failure follows silence and indifference. We might feel we lack the influence to effect change and affect the world and resist the powers (governments and corporations) that run the world’s business. We are not on our own but united to God and a community of believers. We are called within the church to reflect right-relationships with each other, respecting the ‘hidden God’ in each other (women, gay and lesbian people, poor people, marginated people) and project it outwards to the world. We cannot let our prayer let us feel that is all we need to do. Though not insignificant, prayer must be grounded in concrete action and not sentiment; actions being concrete signs of God’s light shining in the world, and proof that prayer is not empty words or cheap empathy. Institutional and religious piety cannot save us if we are immune to the cries of the poor and the pain of creation. Prayers must be joined with protest. Fasting must be include fairness and justice. Religion can heal or harm as First Nation people, women, people with disability and LGBTIQ+ people remind us.
Pope Francis calls us to head for the peripheries. A Church closed in on itself, paralysed by fear, and remote from lives of people cannot offer the genuine light of the Gospel. He says, ‘I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a church concerned with being at the centre and then ends up by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.’ He has introduced us to what he calls ‘the culture of encounter’ if the church is able to heal wounds and warm hearts. The Gospel constantly invites us to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others.’ The gospel is done in public!
God is invested permanently in this world through the breath and life (salt and light) of each of God’s children—created in God’s image. Each one of us, and each of our neighbours, both far and wide, is indispensable to God’s covenant relationship with us and creation itself. No amount of executive orders, political posturing, tailored rhetoric, or self-aggrandisement can change God’s commitment towards anyone.
Both Isaiah and Jesus call us to go beyond the religious teachers who bow before the agenda of capitalist earth- destroying politicians who out of personal and institutional greed try to make ‘America’ or ‘Australia’ or the ‘church’ great again; when militarism increases, war is threatened, human rights and dissent diminishing; racism and racist policies advocated. Over-concerns with institutions can leave us silent or mute in the face of these abuses.
We are challenged to listen for God’s voice everywhere despite the fact that Jesus’ words seem so far removed from our national ethos. What do we make of a sermon that declares the poor blessed and commands us to love our enemies?
Jesus words are a call to resistance. His words have always been subversive and countercultural. They are meant to uproot and overturn ‘regimes’ or ‘systems’ built on economic power and other forms of violence. The core teaching of nonviolence and the insistence on the blessing of those who are powerless does not allow for passivity or acceptance of abusive authority. Jesus blessed those on the margins by embracing them, being in solidarity with them, and building community with those who have always been shunned. The followers of Jesus, who put flesh on the bones of his words, ‘flavour’ the world around them with love, compassion, courage truth, justice and peace. Many do share the light of God’s love and make a difference in their actions of welcoming refugees and immigrants, standing up for their rights, advocating for them with governments, protesting unjust policies towards people who are living with disability, people who are LGBTIQ+, youth on our streets, and befriend them when we can be giving a message that hate has no place in our lives. It is not enough to know about God. We have to be the activity of God in the World. We are called to live out our identity as salt and light. May we be people whose lives are centre on helping others and making the places around us places of kindness, compassion, hope and fullness of life.