Light will flow from an awakened heart

  • January 26, 2011
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Feb. 6 (Isaiah 58:6-10; Psalm 112; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; Matthew 5:13-16)

What makes a people, society or nation holy or spiritual? For many it is the visible signs of religiosity: crucifixes, churches and places of worship, liturgical celebrations and a privileged place for religious symbols and practices. There is a certain security and comfort in these traditions but often they amount to little more than identity markers and signs of belonging.

Isaiah — as many of the other prophets — questions the manner in which they are used. He makes it crystal clear that the worship of God is properly expressed in justice and compassionate action. He calls for the zealous removal of all forms of economic, social and political bondage that enslaves people. In addition to that he insists on active and hands-on forms of compassion: sharing with the poor and hungry, even to the point of inconvenience and personal sacrifice. Probably the most difficult command is removing the “pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil” — both are things we love to do, especially if we are convinced we are right or morally and spiritually superior.

The political and religious controversies of our own time are disheartening examples of this tendency. Isaiah insists that then and only then is the nation healed and its spiritual light evident. And it is only then that the power of God is manifested on our behalf and our collective prayers answered, all because we have created the conditions for it to happen. There is no free ride and God does not ride to the rescue to clean up the incredible mess we have made of the world but God will aid us in our efforts. Despite the accusations from some that religion should have little or nothing to do with economic, political and social justice the responsibility rests on our shoulders. The degree to which we experience the presence and power of God depends on the effort and time we are willing to expend in freeing, encouraging, aiding, respecting and supporting fellow human beings.

It is very easy to hide behind religious rhetoric and lofty God-talk. And this same rhetoric can be used to manipulate or dominate others. Talk alone means little — what is said must be both sincere and backed up by action. Paul makes no apologies for his apparent deficiencies in public speaking. He is not the type who can sway crowds with the sound of his voice nor does he keep his listeners spellbound. He is not brilliant and does not cut an impressive public figure. In the value system of his day these shortcomings would have spelled the end of Paul as a leader. But for Paul they prove his message: he preaches Christ crucified. Simplicity, humility, non-violence and total reliance on the power and love of God characterize the crucified Christ and Paul wants to model his own life accordingly. He showed them only the power of God’s Spirit working in and through him. This is far more convincing and efficacious than gimmicks, political power or patronage of the powerful.

Matthew may have had Isaiah’s passage in mind while writing these verses. Salt was a symbol of purification and preservation. Jesus saw His own followers — those who practised and lived what He taught — to be the small but powerful source of purification and preservation of the world. His greatest fear was that they would lose their spiritual vitality and understanding and become mere adherents of a religion.

Light is not to be hidden; holiness and justice are personal but not private matters. In John’s Gospel Jesus refers to Himself as the light of the world. But in Matthew His followers also share in this designation. Whatever light or goodness that resides in us must be manifested for the sake of others or it dims and flickers out. Often people are not afraid to disclose their religion but keep their faith well-hidden. Light can only flow from an awakened heart and soul and cannot be commanded or forced. The well-being of the world and humanity depends on people being willing to apply the spiritual principles of their religious faith in concrete and ordinary ways. Faith, love and justice are not abstract concepts but patterns for God-inspired living.

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