February 4, 2011

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

The Sunday Readings

Msgr. Owen CampionThe third section of the Book of Isaiah is the source of this weekend’s first reading.

Scholars believe that this section was written perhaps in Jerusalem for the Hebrew remnant that had returned from Babylon.

This time period 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 his decree allowed the Jewish exiles to return to their homeland after an absence of about four generations.

Release from Babylon brought utter exhilaration to the exiles. They were free to go home!

However, that long-hoped-for opportunity was bittersweet. When the exiles reached their ancestral homeland, they found deprivation and want, living conditions worse than those that they had experienced in Babylon.

In this section of the Book of Isaiah, the prophet reaffirmed God’s goodness, but the prophet also called upon his people to provide for those in need of assistance.

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.

Nearby was Athens, the very symbol of wisdom and logic. Paul had preached in Athens, but not with great success.

He encountered skeptics who asked if the Christian Gospel made any sense. After all, the Gospel ran counter to every conventional pattern of thought.

And, finally and most importantly for so many people, the founder of Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth, had been legally executed as a common criminal and traitor to the empire.

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

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

In the first statement, Jesus tells the disciples that they are “the salt of the earth.”

In his second statement, the Lord admonishes his followers to be “the light of the world.”

These images of salt and light hardly are unknown today, but an ancient aspect about them is not well known in contemporary culture.

At the time of Jesus, salt was precious. Roman soldiers were paid in salt.

A common saying that is still heard today is, “He is not worth his salt.”

“Salary” derives from this practice.

Salt was unrefined, and often dust or sand was mixed in with the salt. Good quality salt without impurities was valuable.

Today, people are accustomed to bright light at night. Darkness was a serious obstacle at the time of Jesus. Light was precious.

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


Gently, but deliberately, the Church is guiding us onward from its introduction of Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of the human, Mary, and the Son of God as well as the Redeemer of the sinful human race.

The Church celebrates his birth on the feasts of Christmas, Epiphany and the Lord’s Baptism.

The Church challenges us to respond to Jesus. These readings are very clear. Discipleship is the actual and intentional modeling of Christ in our daily lives.

However, and Matthew makes this clear, believers have a strength to draw from 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 strong—as is salt that is free of impurities—disciples must rid themselves of sin and fortify their Christian resolve. This is the task of Lent. †

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