God’s vision is revealed in hidden and unexpected places. We have witnessed God’s revealing at the Epiphany, Jesus Baptism and the Presentation. This revealing includes God’s vision, the unveiling of hidden truths in unexpected places, and how we far we have strayed from that vision of God’s ‘Shalom’ – peaceful reign – where humankind and the non-human world are joined.
Jesus continually takes us back to the roots of true religion, our true connection with God…with has implications for our engagement/encounter with people and environment. After lifting up the mostly unlikely people (last week’s gospel) - 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 - transforming the earth. These images share something of our identity and our responsibility. Being ‘salt of the earth’ and ‘light of the world involves transforming the earth. Jesus’ words affirm and challenge. We are about God’s business. 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 part of the world and enlighten its dark places. Faith is useless if not about transforming the world
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.’ God’s presence is manifested by acting here and now; proclaiming justice, peace and goodness. The Beatitudes reveal God’s heart and the values of the Reign which doe not make sense to many in power. 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.
Pope Francis hinted at this when he said that attributing salt and light to many Christians might be misplaced when 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 if people do not feel welcome, when the humanity embracing God is not experienced God’s image is hidden. We see in today’s reading that faith cannot be compartmentalised. Isaiah says that if this happens then religion and politics are suspect. 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 cannot contribute to the world’s healing or transformation. It is not about learning certain creeds, signing mission statements or doing specific spiritual exercises. God’s word must take flesh in each of us – no matter how frail we may be. The light can shine through our humanity, our cracks and our frailties.
Isaiah’s exhortation puts flesh on the Beatitudes: 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 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.
Pope Francis 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 wants to introduce into the Church what he calls ‘the culture of encounter’ if the church is able to heal wounds and warm hearts.’
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 continues, ‘We cannot passively and calmly wait in our church building.’ ‘The Gospel constantly invites us to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others.’ The gospel is done in public! Isaiah 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. Religious practices need to be mated with care for the Earth’s most vulnerable. Prayers must be joined with protest. Fasting must be include fairness and justice. Religion was profoundly political in Isaiah’s time as in ours. Religion can heal or harm. Ask First Nations peoples, women and LGBTIQ+ people. It can restore or destroy. We should resist any attempts to draw ourselves from the pain people and the Earth.
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. And this investment, like the preserving qualities of salt of which Jesus and his followers knew and depended on all too well, endures. Then, Jesus throws a wrench in this image — ‘But if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.’ (5:13b) Humanity – each one of God’s precious children – is the salt of the earth. 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 to each of God’s children.
Both Isaiah and Jesus call us to go beyond the religious teachers in their so called righteousness and morality.The bar is often set very low. Many religious leaders bow before the agenda of capitalist earth destroying politicians; they bow before the capitalist, earth-destroying agenda of politicians in their personal and institutional greed and immorality as they 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. Yet, in the face there is over concern with the institution and silence 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 a ‘regime’ 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 is does not allow for passivity or acceptance of abusive authority. Jesus blessed those on the margins his culture and society 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 those in government, protesting unjust policies towards people who are living with disability, people who are LGBTIQ+, youth on our streets, and befriend them when we can giving a message that hate has no place inour 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.
For Compiled by Claude Mostowik msc,
Director of Missionaries of the Sacred Heart Justice and Peace Centre, Enmore, NSW
President, Pax Christi Australia
Convenor, Pax Christi Australia (NSW)