Fifth Sunday: Becoming Christ

This Sunday we continue our reading of the Sermon on the Mount.  It continues from weeks four to nine of this year of Matthew: almost an eighth of the year, and more than a sixth of Ordinary Time.  This Sermon is central to Matthew’s Gospel, and the Lectionary makes it central to our Matthean years.

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

We don’t get to read all of the Sermon, but this week we read the verses that immediately follow last week’s Beatitudes: “You are the salt of the earth.”

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The preaching of Jesus often uses multiple metaphors to bring out different aspects of the same thing.  Here the metaphors are salt of the earth, city on a hill, light of the world.  As so often happens with the Gospel (this is the challenge of the new evangelization), these words are so familiar that they can seem less challenging than they are.

The three metaphors all obviously point to mission.  But more deeply, they point to identity.  Paired with the Beatitudes, they seem to say: if you profess to follow Christ, you’d better look like it.

The first metaphor, salt of the earth, is arresting.  “If salt loses its taste” is absurd: there is nothing to salt but its taste.  “It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot”: salt losing its taste is so impossible that the metaphor doesn’t make sense.  Salt never gets thrown out.

But that’s the point: so too, a Christian who does not follow the Beatitudes, a Christian who is not imbued with the full radicalism of the image of Christ, is not just disappointing or kind of bad, it’s

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

absurd.  The Beatitudes are not nice suggestions or side issues.  They are essential.  Poor, sorrowing, meek, just, merciful, pure, and peacemaking – or nothing

“Loses its taste” is hard to translate.  The verb is literally, “becomes a moron” – its primary meaning is about stupidity; it only refers to flavor by extension.  These are not nice words.  Jesus knows how moronic our Christianity will become.

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“A city set on a mountain.”   The reference is obviously Jerusalem.  “Set” is a good translation.  The city is “sitting” on the hill because someone has “set” it there.  He made you this city.

The city brings out a collective angle.  We are each individually salt – but we are all together the city, and all together the salt.  Leave the city – leave the Church – and you become tasteless, pointless, moronic.

The city “cannot” by hidden.  The verb is forceful.  Partly it means “must not,” “dare not,” “you’d better not.”  But partly, again, it means, “it’s just a contradiction”: if you don’t taste like the Beatitudes, you’re not just a bad Church, you are no Church at all.

In the second and third third metaphors, Jesus does not repeat the “trampled under foot” part, from the salt metaphor – but it stays implicit.  If you do not look like, taste like, show forth the Beatitudes – you are nothing.  The call of Jesus is radical.

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And last, the lamp.  Again, note the verb: “nor do they light a lamp.”  Actually, the lamp is “set on fire.”  It doesn’t say who sets it on fire, but obviously it is Jesus himself who must set us aflame.

The Beatitudes are not just a moral teaching.  They are the face of Christ.  Christ wants to take root in us, to transform us into himself.  He wants to set us aflame, “set” us on the hill, transform us into salt.  He wants to be not just our teacher, but our identity, the one who makes us what we are, so that we are poor with his poverty, weep with his tears, bring his peace to the world.

Only in that way, in the last words of our reading, does his Father become “your heavenly Father.”

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Our first reading, from Isaiah, brilliantly illumines the Gospel.  “Then,” it says, “your light shall break forth.”  When?  When we feed the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless, clothe the naked.  Isaiah twice repeats these ideas.

Sound familiar?  How brilliantly the reading from Isaiah ties together the first and the last words of Jesus’s preaching in Matthew’s Gospel.  We have been talking about the Beatitudes – but Jesus’s final words are feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the sick and the imprisoned; or else, the threat is his, not mine, go to Hell.

The preaching of Pope Francis on this essential passage in Matthew 25 takes us to the heart of the teaching.  First, he points to how practical these words are.  At the end of his preaching, as at the beginning, in the Beatitudes, Jesus doesn’t call us to stand back and profess doctrine, as if Catholicism were a political party or a favorite sports team with these ski masks being inmense fans.  He calls us to take on his own face, to touch others with

Pope Francis and Our Friend Dominic Gondreau

his own touch.  Doctrine matters – when it becomes our very life.

Second, note that clothing the naked is a bit odd.  Naked?  This is more than dropping clothes off at Goodwill.  We clothe the naked, Francis says, when we cover the humiliation of others’ poverty.  When we become the radical love of Jesus Christ.

“Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer.”  “Then your light shall break forth.”  “Then light shall rise for you.”  When Christ becomes our very life, our prayers will be answered: we will see him, and make him seen.

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And so again, in our reading from First Corinthians, we look not for “sublimity of words or of wisdom.”  We look for, and put on, nothing but “Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”  We come not in strength but “in weakness and fear and much trembling,” and we long only for “a demonstration of Spirit and power”: the Spirit who can make us like Jesus.

Nothing but Jesus.

Where is Jesus calling you to become more radical?

eric.m.johnston

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