6 February, 2011    Fifth Sunday before Lent 2011 (A)  

Salt and light

Conventional wisdom about conservation and dietary wisdom about heart disease could well result in a world characterised by “salt free gloaming”. I don’t for one moment think that Jesus has this is mind in the first part of today’s gospel; it follows the Sermon on the Mount and is itself followed by strictures against law breaking that seem almost to cancel out the precepts of blessedness. It is as if Matthew, with his Jewish audience in mind, is somehow covering his tracks and in between those two comes the bit about salt and light. We are taken away from the definite possibility of persecution and calumny into a positive picture of the life of the disciple of Jesus.

The being like salt is a bit problematic because we know that food without any salt is dire and food with too much is horrible but at a pinch the saltless food can be eaten but not the over salted. Salt can also be a preservative; massaging with salt greatly enhances lamb to be roasted; salt that falls on a living plant kills it. Salt melts snow and ice and eats the car that travels along the treated road; it creates that amazing buoyancy in the Dead Sea - known to Jesus for it was the only Palestinian source of salt - but a mouthful of the Dead Sea is truly horrid. After surgery, bathing in salt water is a great comfort and the best known therapy to get the wounds to heal. Now you will be glad, I am sure, that I do not intend to work out nice spiritual parallels for all the uses of salt save to say that it is dangerous!  

Light, too, has multitudes of advantages but it also can be dangerous. Too much hot sun can be fatal; anybody who is ocularly disadvantaged knows the horrific effects of dazzle (had the Transfiguration been an occasion of dazzle I doubt if the disciples would remember much about it – that was brightness greater than any fuller could contrive and that is no doubt what Jesus was thinking about). In the classic dramatisation of Peter Pan, the moment most remember is when those in the audience are asked to shout out their belief in fairies and Tinker Bell gradually gets brighter and brighter, while the most damning reference to anybody I have ever met is to refer to them as a “dim bulb”.

We, as salt, must do what salt does in its proper application and resist the temptation to scorch and blast; rather we must soothe, heal, make food tasty. We as light must resist the temptation, even if we could effect it, to dazzle, to dominate, to have our own way regardless.   All this is illustrated by a study circle to which I was privileged to belong in Stellenbosch at the height of apartheid nearly 40 years ago.  It was made up of academics from Stellenbosch and Cape Town universities of many different disciplines and many were the topics we considered, from town planning to the gospel of Mark. These people were used to the cut and thrust of academic argument where no quarter was given or expected and it could sound very fierce. It was some time before I dared to open my mouth knowing that I had to be well prepared and I expected to be shot down but the gathering was wonderfully charitable. All of us, in some way, were adversely affected by the struggle of those years; some were right in the forefront of the intellectual opposition to the government - there was a lot of salt and a great deal of light - but no poison and no dazzle. We were all friends. Some of us became close friends and for all of us this group was one of the highlights of the month. The group contained some who were definitely stars, loads of illumination and lots of salty wisdom but it wasn’t just a “talking shop”; we were all stimulated and encouraged in those dark days. Here was wisdom and light, hope and faith.

None of us should ever think of ourselves as “dim bulbs” - we are not all meant to coruscate, thank God. Lot’s wife was probably more use to Lot as a pillar of salt. We can all do with the sort of affirmation that makes Tinker Bell glow, our illumination encouraged by others.  Salt and light for Jesus is a whole lot more than a set of sticky cruets on a boarding house dining table at the base of a moth-eaten pink lampshade. So now you know!

        Aidan Mayoss CR