Suppose we were sitting with others at a table eating a supper. However, the people were thinking their dinner was bland, as they didn’t have salt. The Salt Association maintains that salt “enhances flavors” and “brings out the natural tastes in foods.”
Suppose that you or I held onto a salt shaker. We sprinkled salt on our food but we never passed the salt shaker to anyone else. Perhaps, we didn’t realize that we had the only salt shaker or just didn’t think they wanted it.
We may have noticed people at the table looking at us but we didn’t realize that they wanted us to pass the salt.
In the Gospel today (Mt 5:13-20), Jesus tells us: “You are the salt of the earth” (Mt 5:13).
First of all we have to see that our faith in Jesus is very important. Faith gives us much strength but we don’t see that other people need that faith because it changes life. One man who had been raised as an atheist said that when he became a believer the lights went on.
For centuries, salt was used in the Roman rite of Baptism. The priest put a few grains in the mouth of the Baptized, saying, “Receive the salt of wisdom, that you may have the taste for things of God.”
The Letter to the Colossians urges believers to season their words: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt so that you know how you should respond to each one” (Col 4:6). Just as people season food to bring out the inherent tastes so, as we share the Gospel, we bring seasoning to people’s lives.
The traditional way that salt was produced was by evaporation of salt water. Thomas Aquinas compares the formation of the apostles with this: “Salt is made from sea water and the heat of fire or the sun: The apostles were made from the water of tribulation and the heat of love, which is from the Holy Spirit” (Commentary on Matthew). Our own formation in Christ includes the difficulties as well as the love of the Holy Spirit.
Thomas explains, “All things are seasoned with salt: hence, it signifies the wisdom which apostolic men ought to have” (Commentary on Matthew). How do we share our wisdom? Thomas observes that this apostolic wisdom is more than what we say, “Apostolic teaching ought to be reflected in our every deed” (Commentary on Matthew).
Thomas recalls words from a medieval commentary: “The best salt is seasoning the worldly by the example of life.” How we live teaches! Pope Paul VI famously stated: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” (Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, 41).
How does salt lose its taste? Thomas says, “One loses his savor when he is guilty of sin … if on account of tribulations you withdraw from virtue, in what shall you be salted …?” (Commentary on Matthew). We can lose our savor by diluting our living faith with other things or minimizing faith, as we concentrate on our disappointments of life.
Jesus proclaims another image: “You are the light of the world” (Mt 5:14). Christians give light in a variety of ways, at times by what we say but always by the way we live.
Thomas marvels how the apostles were able to be lights to the world: “Their light was hardly known in their own land and yet it went out to the whole world” (Commentary on Matthew). Our own efforts might seem small but God can use them.
The light that the apostle gave was not from themselves: “Christ is the light essentially, but the Apostles are called illuminated lights, namely by participation, just as the eye is an illuminating light and yet it is illuminated” (Commentary on Matthew).
As those who bear the light, the apostles should not hide themselves: “A city set on a mountain cannot be hid.” Thomas observes, “They could not hide themselves even if they wanted to do so… and they ought not to hide themselves” (Commentary on Matthew). Even when Christians do not speak about their beliefs, others are aware of their faith and watch to see whether they live what they believe. Scandals in the Church send the contrary message when even the ones who preach don’t practice.
Thomas understands the “city set on a mountain” to be “the congregation of the faithful… it is located on a mountain, namely Christ… Christ could not hide; and therefore, [He tells them] ‘You Apostles, are unable to hide Me” (Commentary on Matthew).
Thomas reminds us that we have been given faith for others, “Neither do men light a lamp” (Mt 5:15): “It is as though He were to say, ‘Let us suppose that you could hide yourselves, nevertheless, you ought not to do so. For no one receiving a benefit ought to do something with it contrary to the intention of its donor. God gave you knowledge so that you could share it with others: ‘As everyone has received grace, ministering the same one to another’ (1 Pt 4:10)” (Commentary on Matthew).
While our faith is very personal it is also a gift we have received and which we have to share.
Thomas observes: “By ‘lamp,’ one can firstly understand this to mean Gospel teaching: ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path’ (Ps 118:105). For a lamp has a light incorporated in it; the light of truth is placed in Sacred Scripture, and it is lighted by the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.” We offer this light to others.
“Lamp” can also be understood to mean the apostles, “insofar as the light of grace was imparted to them: ‘He [John the Baptist] was a burning and a shining light’ (Jn 5:35).”
“Lamp can also mean Christ, “just as a lamp is a light in an earthen vessel, so Christ’s divinity is in His humanity…”
Thomas asserts: “They ought to shine before men by enlightening them: ‘To me, the least of all the saints, is given this grace to preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to enlighten all men” (Eph 3:8-9).
Thomas instructs: “On account of God’s glory, we ought to perform good works so that God made be glorified by our good life: ‘Therefore whether you eat or drink, or whatsoever else you do, do all to the glory of God’ (1 Cor 10:31)” (Commentary on Matthew).
Thomas realizes that letting people see goodness in our actions may seem to contradict Jesus’ warning not to let our good works be seen (Mt 6:1). Thomas borrows an example from Augustine that a person might use a boat to reach a destination but the boat itself is not the destination: “If you wish to be seen by men so that you may give them an example and on account of God’s glory, you would not be forbidden” (Commentary on Matthew).
We also realize that we are fragile and can easily lose the gift which we have been given: “The loss of strength through the removal of grace: ‘By the grace of God I am what I am’ (1 Cor 15:10).”
For this reason Paul stated: “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). Paul declared: “For we do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for the sake of Jesus” (2 Cor 4:5).
Thomas reflects: “For this work there was no need to make a display of wisdom but to show Christ’s power… Consequently, he employed only those things which proved Christ’s power, and regarded himself as knowing nothing but Jesus Christ” (Commentary on the First Letter to the Corinthians).
In Christ, as the Letter to the Colossians states, “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3). But, as Thomas notes, Paul did not preach about “the fullness of His Godhead and the fullness of His wisdom and grace and by reason of knowing the profound reasons of the incarnation” but only what was “more obvious and lowly in Christ Jesus … Him crucified”: “May I never boast except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (Gal 6:14).
Thomas affirms: “Therefore, since the cross of Christ is made void by the wisdom of speech … the Apostle came not in loftiness of speech or of wisdom” (Commentary on the First Letter to the Corinthians).
Paul reminds the Galatians that they welcomed him when he preached to them during a period of physical infirmity (Gal 4:13). Thomas points out: “He did not pretend to have any power when he was among them, but on the contrary, weakness within and without” (Commentary on the First Letter to the Corinthians).
The Gospel must be preached to all people: “Furthermore, it can be communicated to all: ‘On whom does his light not shine?’ (Job 25:3); and preachers should be available to all: ‘Give to everyone who begs from you’ (Lk 6:30)” (Commentary on the First Letter to the Corinthians).
Paul explains the ultimate source of his preaching: “My message and my preaching had none of the persuasive force of wise argumentation, but the convincing power of the Spirit. As a consequence, your faith rests not on the wisdom of men but on the power of God” (1 Cor 2: 4-5). If the preaching is effective, it is because of the Spirit, as reported in the Acts of the Apostles: “While Peter was yet speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell on all of them that heard the word” (Acts 10:44).
Paul VI asserts: “It must be said that the Holy Spirit is the principal agent of evangelization: it is He who impels each individual to proclaim the Gospel, and it is He who in the depths of consciences causes the word of salvation to be accepted and understood” (Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, 75).
The Gospel itself holds the power of God: “I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith” (Rom 1:16).
One of the forms of the dismissal at the close of Mass instructs the faithful, “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.” Each of us is to announce the Gospel.
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References to St. Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew are taken from the translation of Fr. Paul M. Kimball, Dolorosa Press, 2012, pp. 161-167.
The quotations from St. Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on the First Letter to the Corinthians were translated by R.F. Larcher, O.P. The full text may be found on the web site of the Dominican House of Studies, Washington, D.C.: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/