The sun was shining from the clear blue sky, the air was still, filled with the pleasant smell of the forest and rather shy trill of birds. As I walked through the Forest of Glen Tanar last week, across the exposed slopes, I had to take off my jacket, gloves, hat and scarf – it was so pleasantly warm. But when the path ran through deep shadows of the forest, it felt uncomfortably chilly – so much so that I considered wrapping up again. I didn’t; I can be quite lazy… While walking I was pondering on today’s gospel and Jesus’ call to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world – what does it mean in my life?
As always, in order to understand the meaning of a specific passage in the Bible, we need to look at its wider context. I think it’s particularly important regarding today’s gospel.
St Matthew, the author of the gospel, was a former tax collector and a Jew. We can assume he had been better educated than the average contemporary of his, and as a Jew, he was well-versed in the Holy Scriptures which we know as the Old Testament. He was also a Christian, which meant he had to find ways to reconcile Judaism and its core claim that ‘The Lord is the only God’ (Deuteronomy 6:4) and Christianity’s claim that Jesus is God. He did it by reading the Scriptures from a different perspective: all the promises and prophecies of the past had found their fulfilment in Jesus Christ. For Matthew Jesus is a new Moses, foretold by the latter in his final speech before his death: ‘The Lord your God will send to you a prophet. This prophet will come from among your own people, and he will be like me. You must listen to him.’ (Deuteronomy 18:15) St Matthew structured his gospel around five big speeches by Jesus, in reference to the Torah, the first five books considered holy by all the Jews and for centuries ascribed to Moses. To this day there are editions of the Bible that name those five books as the First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Book of Moses respectively.
Moses gave the newly liberated Israelites the Ten Commandments and the Law on the holy Mount of Horeb. That was the beginning of their journey to the Promised Land. Jesus’ public ministry in the gospel of St Matthew begins with this opening scene: ‘When Jesus saw the crowds of people there, he went up on a hill and sat down. His followers came and sat next to him. Then Jesus began teaching the people.’ What follows is called the Sermon on the Mount and effectively it’s the new Law for the new people of Israel. It starts with the Beatitudes, a positive echo of the Ten Commandments (we missed that last Sunday because we celebrated the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord). Then today’s passage is uttered: You are the salt of the earth. […] You are the light of the world. […] Your light must shine in the sight of men, so that, seeing your good works, they may give praise to your Father in Heaven.’
In the gospel of St John, Jesus calls himself ‘the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never live in darkness. They will have the light that gives life.’ (John 8:12). So, our call to be ‘the light of the world’ means we must be connected to the source of light, Jesus. Here comes the inspiration from my walk in the Forest of Glen Tanar. An information board there explained that the forest canopy must be opened to allow sunlight to reach the floor of the forest to help saplings grow. When the forest gets too thick and impenetrable, there’s very little life underneath. I’ve seen such woods in Scotland. It’s dark, the branches and twigs make it impassable and the only life are creepy crawlies. The information board continued that such necessary openings are made naturally by storms or mechanically by felling trees.
I think it greatly illustrates our lives. Imperceptibly our hearts can get overgrown with so many things that fill our lives and our time. In their own right, they are not necessarily bad or wrong; but they eventually obscure the light of Christ and take over our lives, eventually plunging them into darkness. Sometimes a dramatic turn of events, a storm, fells those trees of everyday life and opens our hearts to the light of Christ. Usually, it’s quite unpleasant. So, instead of waiting for an unpredictable turn of events to open the canopy, we can do it ourselves. We have many tools in our spiritual shed to make openings and let Jesus cast his light into our hearts. All the religious practices the Church offers are at our disposal: reading and listening to the Word of God, regular prayer, examination of conscience, the sacrament of reconciliation, Mass… Use them and you will be immersed in the light; you will never live in darkness. You will have the light that gives life.