February 3, 2017

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time / Msgr. Owen F. Campion

The Sunday Readings

Msgr. Owen CampionThe Book of Isaiah’s third section is the source of this first weekend’s reading. Scholars believe that this section was written perhaps in Jerusalem for the Hebrew remnant that had returned from Babylon.

This would put this section of Isaiah at a date after the epic Babylonian Captivity. As political fortunes turned, the Persian ruler, Cyrus, had overtaken Babylon, and he allowed the Jewish exiles to return to their homeland after an absence of four generations. Indeed, probably few had ever seen their homeland.

Nevertheless, release from Babylon brought utter exhilaration to the exiles. They were free to go home!

This seemingly wondrous opportunity was bittersweet. When the exiles reached their ancestral homeland, they found deprivation and want, conditions worse than anything that they had experienced in Babylon.

Amid the disappointment and anger, the prophet reaffirmed God’s goodness, calling upon the people to provide for those in need. Then they would experience the fullness of vindication, the fullness of God’s promise to give them life and peace.

St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians provides the second reading. This epistle was addressed to Christians living in Corinth, then one of the major cities of the Roman Empire. Rich and sophisticated, Corinth was a virtual center of the culture at the time. It also was a cesspool of vice.

Paul’s message ran directly counter to all that mattered in Corinth. Of course, skeptics scorned him, asking if the Christian Gospel made any sense. The Lord was an obstacle for many. After all, importantly for so many, the founder of Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth, had been legally executed as a common criminal and as a traitor to the empire.

The Apostle’s proclamation of Jesus in itself put mere human knowledge in its place.

In response, Paul insisted that he relied upon a source greater and more dependable than human wisdom, namely the Holy Spirit.

St. Matthew’s Gospel furnishes the last reading, a collection of two brief statements by Jesus, given in highly descriptive and clear imagery.

In the first statement, Jesus tells the disciples that they are the “salt of the Earth” (Mt 5:13). In the second, the Lord admonishes followers to be the “light of the world” (Mt 5:14). These images, salt and light, hardly are unknown today, but an ancient aspect of each of them is unknown in contemporary culture.

At the time of Jesus, salt was precious. Roman soldiers were paid in salt. (“He is not worth his salt.”) The word “salary” derives from this practice. Salt also was unrefined. Dust or sand usually mixed with salt. The less the dust and sand, the better the salt.

Today, people are accustomed to seeing bright lights at night. Darkness was a serious obstacle at the time of Jesus. Light, then, was precious in its own sense.

Jesus urges disciples to uplift the earthly society by being “salt” and “light.”

Reflection

Gently, but deliberately, the Church is guiding us onward from its introduction of Jesus of Nazareth as the son of Mary and the Son of God, as Redeemer of the sinful human race, as manifested at Christmas, Epiphany, and his baptism in the Jordan. It challenges us to respond to Jesus.

These readings are clear. Discipleship is not mere lip service. It is the actual and intentional resembling of Christ in our daily lives.

Matthew makes clear, however, that believers have a strength upon which to draw as they illuminate the world. It is within the grace of their faith. As disciples, they are precious. Being a disciple is demanding, but it is not impossible.

Of course, to be pure, worthy and therefore as strong as salt free of impurities, disciples must rid themselves of sin and fortify their Christian resolve. This is the task of Lent, soon to begin. †

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