by Br Julian McDonald
“Your light must shine before people, so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5, 13-16
All three of this Sunday’s readings take up the topic of our giftedness and how we are meant to use our gifts as disciples intent on building the kingdom of God. In the gospel reading, we hear Jesus telling us that we are all meant to be salt and light for our world. The first reading from Isaiah details what that actually looks like in practice – living with integrity and doing our best to make our part of the world a moral and decent place in which to live by acting justly and with compassion, sharing our bread with the poor, sheltering the homeless and clothing the naked. It all sounds very doable, doesn’t it? Well, at least until we turn our attention to practicing it day after day.
It doesn’t take long for us to realise that Jesus was not teaching something totally new in the Sermon on the mount. He had grown up immersed in the Jewish scriptures. He was familiar with the book of Isaiah and clearly knew the challenge of today’s first reading. However, he saw that his contemporaries had fallen short when it came to acting with integrity, and caring for the poor and neglected in their community. Somehow or other, he could sense in the people around him a reluctance to step up and be counted, a hesitation to take the risk of stepping out from the crowd and daring to reach out to the people everyone else was prepared to ignore. I suggest he knew that we can all become as paralysed as the owner of the two eyes in the Ashleigh Brilliant cartoon at the top of this page, looking out on our world in need but afraid to do anything for anyone, lest we be ridiculed. Jesus seemed to sense that people turn religion into a private affair, each thinking that it’s a private relationship between “me and God:” That’s why he drew our attention to the fact that, as contributors to the building of God’s kingdom, we are meant to be salt and light, instead of hiding our light and being so insipid that we end up having no distinctive colour and taste, and giving flavour to nothing.
All too often we can find ourselves turning up in our churches, sitting in the pews as a whole lot of separate individuals, connecting with nobody, fulfilling our private obligations and creating nothing like a vibrant community of people intent on bringing the Gospel to life. We’re so careful about avoiding the risk of embarrassment or being seen, that we end up doing precisely nothing that will bring life to anyone. We seek the safety of sitting in the same spot week after week so that we won’t have to give the sign of peace to a stranger or a vagrant who wanders in out of the cold. And as for reaching out to the poor, the homeless, the lonely and the naked, we can make a donation to the St. Vincent de Paul group in the parish and leave them to do the home visits.
Perhaps we find some relief in the comfortable familiarity of today’s gospel reading, maybe because it doesn’t feel as hard-hitting as the second reading from Corinthians. Paul starts by acknowledging to the people of Corinth that he had come among them “in weakness, in fear and in much trembling”, probably because he knew that they were aware of his chequered history. But he quickly adds that he allowed space for God’s Spirit to make up for his own personal inadequacies. Implicit in what he says is the message that none of us can legitimately make excuses for doing nothing to ensure that we are become salt and light. To plead that we don’t have the necessary gifts just isn’t true. In Paul’s mind, we are all gifted in some way or other, even if we are not capable teachers or eloquent speakers or good at relating to strangers. We all have something to give others. But one “gift” we all have in common is human weakness. We are all flawed. Once we can admit that, we are well on the way to letting God into our lives, not just individually, but as a community of people. When we do that, we make space for God’s Spirit to become active in and through us. And that is something well worth sharing. So, there is no real room for any of us to start trotting out: “I’m not worthy enough; I’m not good enough; I just don’t have the talent.” Actually, the little we each have is enough. If we each contribute the little we have, the community ends up with a lot. Then God will build on all our little contributions and do the rest. Not perfectly, but sufficiently to make a difference.
Those very actions for which we Christians are expected to be conspicuous come at a fairly high emotional cost, for no other reason than we are reluctant to stand out from the crowd. Sharing our bread with the hungry looks simple enough at the local level. However, we know that the world’s population is increasing so quickly that the earth will run out of its ability to sustain us all. Can we accept that, by feeding those in need, we will diminish our own supplies? Reaching out to the homeless and clothing the naked essentially means treating everyone we encounter as equal, equal in dignity and worthy of the same respect to which we believe we are entitled. It means burying our prejudices, letting go of the suspicion we have of strangers, treating those suffering from coronavirus as our sisters and brothers. That’s a lot more difficult than it sounds. Yet, that’s how Isaiah and Paul and Jesus call us to live; that’s the implication of being told that we are salt and light. All three of them call us to praise God not just by our words but in the actions of our everyday lives.
In other reflections, I have shared the story of the great Israeli-American violinist, Itzhak Perlman, who was once reported to have played with exceptional skill and beauty a Bartok sonata on three strings of his violin after the fourth had snapped. After he was given a prolonged standing ovation at the conclusion of his performance, he commented: “You know, sometimes it is the artist’s task to discover how much music he can still make with what he has left.”
Isn’t that the message that today’s readings put to each of us? However flawed, broken, depressed, sinful or differently-abled we happen to be, we are called as Christians, as disciples of Jesus to make music for our world with whatever we have left. We don’t have to look far for inspiration. We see it in heroic proportion in people who have dragged themselves out of addiction and kept themselves clean for decades. We see it in doctors and nurses who fight to protect whole communities from Ebola or leprosy or SARS or provide clean water and sanitation for countless children at risk. We see it in the courage and generosity of parents who have lost children in tragedy and yet have found the strength to launch Compassionate Friends as a way of supporting other parents who have come to experience similar tragedy. Are we able to respond to that kind of inspiration and make the music of the Gospel with the little we have?