Opening the Word: Salt, light and a city

In the beatitudes (Mt 5:1-12), Jesus proclaimed, in authoritative fashion, the new law of the New Covenant. By going into the wilderness and up on a mountain, Jesus presented himself as the new Moses. But he was not just a new prophet, as Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis points out, “but God himself, who inscribes the Law of his Sacred Heart no longer now on stone tablets but on the very hearts of men.”

The Sermon on the Mount can also be described as instruction in discipleship. And what is the essence of discipleship? Sacrificial love — the gift of one’s self for the greatest good, God, and the good of others.

“This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:34-35). In today’s Gospel reading, the disciples are likened to — or, better, actually described as — three things: salt, light and a city.

What do these three have in common? “Salt does not exist for itself,” observes Father Hans Urs von Balthasar, “but to season things; light does not exist for itself, but to brighten its surroundings; the city on the hill is constructed to be a visible orientation point for others.”

In the ancient world, salt was considered so valuable by the Romans that spilling it was taken as a bad omen. The word “salary” is derived from the word “salt,” in reference to payments made to Roman soldiers; a bad soldier was sometimes described as “not worth his salt.” Prior to refrigeration, salt was vital to keeping food pure and edible, which in turn had a significant effect on the health, stability and success of ancient peoples.

Newborn Jewish babies were rubbed with salt (cf. Ez 16:4), and some burnt offerings were sprinkled with salt (Lv 2:13; Nm 18:19; Ez 43:24), symbolizing the indissoluble, covenantal relationship between God and the people of Israel.

Light, as we’ve seen before, was not something taken for granted by the ancients. The rising and the setting of the sun had a tremendous impact on the routines and lives of everyone.

Meanwhile, a city was a place of community and protection. The city on the mountain, however, is not just figurative. It refers to the Church, but also above the world. That is, the Church is not a temporary entity, a political party or a nation, but something greater — the household of God and the pillar and foundation of truth” (cf 1 Tm 3:15).

Blessed John Paul II, speaking to the youth of Rome in 2002, addressed the question, “What must we do to become the salt of the earth and the light of the world?”

The first thing to remember, the pope said, is that God created us in his image, calling us to our “first and fundamental vocation: communion with him! It is this that gives human beings their highest dignity.”

God constantly draws us to himself, and that attraction is called “vocation.”

Our great gift from God is freedom. Embraced and lived rightly, freedom means growth in communion with God and therefore loving others as Christ loves us. But when the gift of freedom is not formed by the Gospel, it “can be transformed into slavery: the slavery of sin and eternal death.”

The radical demonstration of God’s love is, as St. Paul told the Corinthians, found in the cross: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

Through death, life is given. Out of darkness, light emerges. In a land of bitterness, salt is tasted.

Because of this, we can “rejoice and be glad!”

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.