Some time ago, inspired by a radio programme, I started making my own, natural bread. The beginning of my newly-embraced career as a baker was a bit bumpy. Following all the required steps and phases I measured all the ingredients carefully, mixed them and left them for proving. Hours later I baked the risen dough, and then left it to cool down. The smell was great, the loaf looked a bit rustic (intentionally), but a couple of times my bread tasted bland. In all my meticulous preparation I had overlooked one ingredient, little in its weight but massive in its impact on the final product: a pinch of salt. It usually makes up just one hundredth of the total weight of a loaf, but lack of salt produces a tasteless lump. Thankfully, the birds in the garden weren’t so fussy about the taste of my bread.
In today’s gospel Jesus addresses his disciples, comparing them to salt and to light. Let’s put this into the right context. Today’s passage is directly preceded by the Beatitudes, a great speech outlining the Christian spiritual framework, followed by Jesus’ detailed explanations as to how to apply that to everyday life: forgiveness instead of revenge, love reaching beyond closest friends, and so on – we’ll listen to it over the next couple of Sundays. So today’s passage is a kind of a motivational bit, encouraging his followers to pick up the challenge of the Beatitudes.
The choice of the two images used by Jesus is pretty interesting. He begins by comparing us to salt; the ingredient in almost every meal, dramatically improving its taste. But we notice that quality only when it’s missing from the dish, as in my aforementioned bread. So, we don’t notice salt’s presence, but we enjoy the result of it. Unlike other seasoning, salt remains hidden, but only as long as it’s neither abused nor underused. In the discussions about the position of Christianity in the public arena, those demanding a total ban on it can be as wrong as those demanding the imposition of Christian values upon a multicultural society. Strike the right balance, and the message of the gospel can positively affect people’s lives without overpowering them.
In the second image Jesus calls us the light of the world. We have to remember that, up to the beginning of the twentieth century, light meant open flame: hot and dangerous. Attempts to cover it up often resulted in either putting it out or in a blazing fire; neither result was desirable. So a lighted lamp was, by its definition, visible to those around like a city on top of a hill. In Jesus’ words we have to be like that: ‘your light must shine in the sight of men’. Those claiming that Christianity is a private matter and should be kept private are only partially right: that being a Christian is a personal choice. All the consequences of that choice are not to be hidden, locked in a closet. Christianity must be openly manifested, because being Jesus’ disciple significantly changes life. Personal choices made because of our faith quite often go against the cultural tide, make us stand out from the crowd, and sometimes can make us a bit unpopular.
Having said that, I’m not sure that Jesus intended us to take up a militantly Christian stance, waging ideological wars on those holding different opinions and beliefs from ourselves. He says that people should see ‘our good works and give praise to our Father in heaven’. Today’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah provides a good set of ‘good works’ – generally speaking these are charitable acts towards people in need, replacing greed, resentment and abuse. The message from Christ is pretty simple: let me change you, and others around you will change.