Signpost for 9 February 2014, 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12); Psalm 112:1-9; 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16); Matthew 5:13-20
Hullo from the new girl.
By way of reassurance Paul, quoting Brye, said, “We are not learned theologians, nor biblical scholars… The best we can do is to tickle our readers with articles into thinking ‘What on earth could they be talking about?” How very strange that in our Corinthians reading another Paul says, “I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom… I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.” St. Paul’s calling was somewhat greater than mine, but it was still amazing to read those words at this particular time.
Our Isaiah passage calls us abruptly away from satisfaction with our outward religious behaviour and points us to social justice. 500 or so years later in the synagogue at Nazareth Jesus quotes from this passage and goes on to tell the stunned congregation, “This day the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Synagogue worship was liturgical like ours, lectionary and all. Jesus’ interjection caused them to sit up and take notice.
Our Gospel reading is part of the Sermon on the Mount and is addressed to Jesus’ disciples (of whom it seems there are only four at this stage). The metaphors “salt” and “light” are not difficult to interpret – how many sermons have we heard or read on this passage? But can we begin to comprehend just what salt meant to the ancients? We still use it today to bring out the flavour of our food, but we are not dependent on its preserving properties. Or darkness? We citified moderns rarely encounter utter darkness – though I do have childhood memories of the horrors of the London blackout and the cries of the ARP Wardens to “put that light out”. To be told that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, and thus the ones called to fulfil Jesus’ transforming mission, must have been astonishing to those hearing it for the first time. Do we sometimes lose sight of the shock value of Jesus’ words and actions?
No, I do not offer lofty words of wisdom. I cannot claim insight or write or think in poetry. I delight in words themselves. Look what these passages have done to enrich our language today – “jot or tittle” from the New Testament (well, my mother often said that); “sackcloth and ashes” from the Old. Long before Isaiah’s time salt was used as a medium of exchange – our word “salary” is a derivative. And we all know people who are “not worth their salt”: and people who do, or do not, “hide their light under a bushel”.
Our Psalm is not a cry of despair or adoration or exultation, but rather a carefully structured work in alphabetic acrostic form. I like to think of the poet sitting down quietly and diligently working away at the complex pattern. Maybe he had two goes at it – Psalm 111 is quite similar. As in most of the Psalms, parallelism is apparent. As C.S. Lewis points out, “It is, according to one’s point of view, either a wonderful piece of luck or a wise provision of God’s that poetry which was to be turned into all languages should have as its chief formal characteristic one that does not disappear (as metre does) in translation.”