When the fire of love no longer burns brightly

File:Salt from Timbuktu.jpg

Watching for the Morning of February 9, 2020

Year A

The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Three years ago, I wrote that Jesus spoke these words about being salt and light to the “poor”:

Jesus is talking to rural villagers, not the Jerusalem elite.  He is talking to those who are poor, mourning and hungering for the world to be set right.  He is talking to refugees in the camps when doors are shut.  He is talking to mothers and children scratching out their existence in the rubble of wars.  He is talking to those in fear of uniforms unrestrained by any law.  He is talking to those who know hunger and thirst.  “You are the salt that burns bright the fire of God.  You are the light that is set on a stand.”

I wonder, now, how those words should be heard among those on the other end of the social pyramid.  Is there grace here, or only judgment?  Is Jerusalem the city set on a hill that cannot be hid?  Is it from the judgment of God the governing authorities cannot hide?  Jerusalem was not a shining beacon of hope; it had become the center of an unjust and impoverishing rule.  Jesus’ scathingly condemns the governing elite in Matthew 23, weeping over the city before predicting its fall.  The authorities choose Rome over the promised kingdom of God and hand Jesus over as a terrorist.

The salt of which Jesus speaks is the salt slab used at the base of an earthen oven that burns dung as fuel.  Salt serves as a catalyst for the fire, letting it burn hot enough to bake the bread that sustains the poor.  Eventually, the slab loses its ability to catalyze the fire.  It doesn’t “lose its taste,” as our translation suggests.  The literal meaning of the Greek word means for the salt to become ‘foolish’.  We should translate it as ‘insipid’ or ‘worthless’, not ‘tasteless’.  A people in whom the fire of divine grace and mercy no longer burns brightly are useful for nothing but stepping stones in the mud.  Those who would hide the justice of God as a lamp beneath a basket are the truly foolish.

To call someone a fool is a serious charge in the biblical world.  It means they have ignored the fundamental truths of existence.  As someone who ignores gravity is a fool, so is the one who ignores the moral and spiritual realities of human life.

“The fool speaks folly, and his mind plots iniquity: to practice ungodliness, to utter error concerning the LORD, to leave the craving of the hungry unsatisfied, and to deprive the thirsty of drink.” (Isaiah 32:6)

When the psalmist says: “The fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God’” (Psalm 53:1), the point has little to do with religious observances; it concerns the failure to recognize the divine imperative to do justice and mercy.  The ‘fool’ doesn’t ignore church but our essential humanity.

The ‘fool’ doesn’t see Lazarus at the gate.  The ‘fool’ builds bigger barns and stores up riches rather than sharing with those in need.  The ‘fool’ doesn’t care for the sick or feed the hungry or clothe the naked.

The ‘fool’ corrupts the courts.   The ‘fool’ chooses revenge.  The ‘fool’ embraces lies and deceit.  “Like one who binds the stone in the sling is he who gives honor to a fool,” says Proverbs 26:8.  Honoring a fool is like handing over a loaded gun.

What shall we say to the foolish who would hide the justice of God as a lamp beneath a basket?

The grieving parent recognizes the folly of war, the dispossessed the folly of greed, the abused the folly of injustice, the hungry the folly of hardened hearts.  All these understand that you don’t put a lamp under a bushel, and that there is no other place but the mud for a slab that does not help the fires of love burn brightly.

The Prayer for February 9, 2020

Gracious God,
you have appointed your people to be in the world
as the fire and light of your justice and mercy.
Fill us with your Holy Spirit,
and shape our lives by your Word,
that through lives of faith, hope, and love
we may bear witness to your reign;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for February 9, 2020

First Reading: Isaiah 58:1-12
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” – In the hardscrabble life after the return from Exile, God confronts the complaint of the people that God has not answered their prayers by challenging the goal of those prayers.  They have sought advantage for themselves rather than to live God’s justice and mercy.

Psalmody: Psalm 112:1-10
“Happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments.” –  A description of the righteous who rest securely in God and the blessing they bring to the world, giving freely to the poor and conducting “their affairs with justice.”

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 2:1-12
“Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom.” –
Having challenged the Corinthians desire for human eloquence and wisdom, Paul writes of the wisdom of God that is so different from the wisdom of this age – the truth of sacrificial love hidden in Christ crucified

Gospel: Matthew 5:13-16 (appointed: Matthew 5:13-20)
“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” – Comparing his followers with salt and light, Jesus summons the community of Israel (and his disciples) back to their calling as the medium through which God brings blessing/healing to the world.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Salt_from_Timbuktu.jpg Robin Elaine [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

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