Fifth Sunday of the Year A (06 February 2011)
Is 58. 7-10; Ps 112; 1Co 2. 1-5; Mt 5. 13-16
Homily of Fr. Paul Panaretos, S.J.
Covenant of Salt
Because Jesus was a Jew, his use of salt in his famous metaphor was guided by his Jewish awareness not by our appreciation of salt. We don’t have as an intense appreciation because salt is easily available; we have only to sprinkle it. Ancient peoples had to find salt, and that meant looking for deposits of it near salt seas, or where salt seas had been.
When found precious salt sealed and symbolized relationships. Eating together was an act of friendship not mere nourishment. During the sabbath meal people dipped bread into salt, a symbol that they agreed to live the relationship of God with them. The divine-human relationship was the covenant, as it is written, “[Recall] the Lord God of Israel gave the kingship over Israel for ever to David and his sons by a covenant of salt.”1 When Jesus calls us salt of the earth, Jesus invites us to join him and not only preserve and live the covenant but to witness it in the sight of others.
Mediterranean people also knew salt had features beyond preserving and flavoring food. Salt affects actions from baking to burning. We add salt in yeast-bread dough to aid the growth of yeast.
Ancient Palestinians used salt to fire their ovens. Wood was not available in large enough quantities. So they made fuel from animal dung. To make it burn, they added salt.2 If salt was old or polluted—no longer salty—it was useless to make their fuel burn.
This burning property of salt may have been one reason why it was part of the recipe for incense3 and included in grain offerings used to worship the God of the covenant with Abraham and his descendants: every cereal offering that you present to the Lord shall be seasoned with salt. Do not let the salt of the covenant of your God be lacking from your cereal offering. On every offering you shall offer salt.4
The refining property of salt played in their minds: healing and strengthening relationships; making the covenant with God enduring, one to be honored day and night, in season and out; and making the people of the covenant a light…break[ing] forth like the dawn. Dawn is worth noting. Dawn, of course, is the twilight before sunrise. Though it isn’t day bright, dawn allows us to distinguish objects, animals and people from each other. Not bright as day but light enough. So prophet Isaiah reminded people could live the covenant for the sake of the world and affect it by modest efforts: Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own.
Jesus reminded his disciples then and us today to live the covenant by living his gospel. When we live his gospel, our lives proclaim it. When we live his gospel, we brighten the world. When we live his gospel, we invite others to shine with their light.5 When we live his gospel, we change the world, setting it ablaze with Jesus’ presence by our presence—even if we are not aware of the effect we have.
Just as salt is never the meal but enhances it, and the bulb is useless if it gives no light, our deeds and choices shaped by Jesus’ gospel not only shine Jesus on our world, they keep us true to the covenant with all people God has completed in Jesus. In his everlasting covenant Jesus has given us, his disciples today, a vital part to play: we are the live wire along which his reconciling power may touch and heal societies wherever Christians live their vocations.6
In your daily 15 minutes with Jesus this week, pause and sink into the life of the Trinity. Ask the disciples to present you to Jesus. Praise Jesus for giving himself to you and inviting you to live his gospel as his disciple today. Ask Jesus for the grace to devote yourself to living his gospel with deeper conviction as you move through your day. Close saying slowly the Lord’s Prayer. Praying Jesus’ words sincerely guide us to worship him in spirit and truth with our hearts as well as our deeds so that we may set the world ablaze with the faith of Jesus alive in us.
- 2 Chronicles 13.5.
- See John Pilch’s brief description of both dung-fuel and earth-ovens in ancient Israel.
- Exodus 30.35
- Leviticus 2.13.
- Commenting on your light must shine before others, St. John Chrysostom encouraged newly baptized Christians Jesus called them to do this. His 4th Catechetical Homily. Paul W. Harkins, St. John Chrysostom: Baptismal Instruction (v. 31 of Ancient Christian Writers series), p. 73.
- The metaphor of “live wire” I owe to Evleyn Underhill. She used it in describing charity: “Adoration, as it more deeply possesses us, inevitably leads on to self-offering. Charity is the live wire along which the power of God, indwelling our finite spirits, can and does act on our souls and other things, rescuing, healing, giving support and light.” In her “The Hill of the Lord,” The Spectator, 19 November 1927. It is in the Dana Greene Collection of research in the Underhill archives.