As the years roll on, it seems to me that what was once called “ordinary time” in the Church calendar becomes less and less ordinary. Or are we living in the “new ordinary”? The term “unprecedented” appears more frequently in weather reports and news broadcasts. I suppose the most ordinary moment of this week will be the annual self-congratulatory entertainment industry extravaganza known as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Awards ceremony. How interesting to see a film about two popes in the running! It’s arguably unprecedented… (One-pope films such as The Shoes of the Fisherman and The Agony and the Ecstasy have risen to prominence, but never achieved Oscardom.) If The Two Popes wins an Oscar, that would be doubly miraculous.
In the meantime, the ordinary Catholic world is taking a breather from high political drama, international conflict, mass shootings, sports events, and increasingly turbulent weather to ponder the mystery of God’s love and care as revealed in the readings for today’s liturgy. But, as usual, the rumblings in the background cannot be entirely ignored. Nor should they be. It’s context.
The first reading from Isaiah draws on what is the most telling and ever-present theme among the prophets and
writings, beginning in fact with the Book of Exodus – the injunction to provide for the victims of misfortune and oppression, characteristically orphans, widows, and resident strangers (read: refugees) in the land. It is the measure of the justice of God’s people:
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you do afflict them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry; and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless” [Exodus 22:21-24 (RSV)].
It would be difficult to find among dozens a clearer statement than this:
“‘Cursed be he who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen’” [Deuteronomy 27:19 (RSV)].
And the last of prophetic works, and the final book of what Christians call “the Old Testament,” proclaims:
“…I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts” [Malachi 3:5b (RSV)].
Jesus’ compassion for widows, his affection for children, and concern for “aliens” such as the Roman centurion, the Syro-Phoenician woman, and the Samaritan woman, testify to his awareness of this tradition. This is perhaps most poignantly recounted in the story Luke tells of the bereaved widow about to bury her only son when Jesus stops the funereal procession and performs an astounding work of mercy [Luke 7:12-15].
“Share your bread with the hungry,” Isaiah commands, “shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own.” He adds that if we heed God’s instruction, our light will shine like the dawn, a presentiment of what Jesus will preach later on about the light of compassion. Isaiah also has a few words about how we talk to one another, and in this day of Twitter and Facebook, shouting candidates, and irascible commentators on cable television, it sounds strangely apt:
“If you remove from your midst oppression,
false accusation and malicious speech…
Then light shall rise for you in the darkness,
And the gloom shall become for you like the midday.”
The responsorial psalm emphasizes the point – the just do not fear an evil report, but shine like a light in the darkness for the upright [Ps. 112:4]. Something Jesus’ words call us back to.
Today’s gospel reading from Matthew’s gospel is taken from the Sermon on the Mount. This passage occurs immediately after the Beatitudes – it’s Jesus’ commentary following his benediction on the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for justice, the merciful, the pure in heart, peacemakers, those who are persecuted for the sake of justice, and those who are reviled, oppressed, and defamed.
Jesus then calls his disciples the salt of the earth — the seasoning that sweetens the bitterness of the world, as in the story of Elisha at Jericho, when he sweetened the bitter waters by putting salt into them [2 Kings 2:18-22]. But what if salt goes flat? The unrefined sea salt of the Middle East could do that. And if his followers lose their faith, their reliance on the simple truth of the gospel, what would happen to the world then?
Here Jesus turns to the imagery found in Isaiah and Psalm 112 – that light must not go out, it is there to illuminate the darkness of the world. Our lives must be like an oil lamp set in a dark and windless place, enabling others to see clearly. If the light dims, if we lose heart, the world grows a little darker, a little colder.
Let your light scatter the darkness, Jesus says…. the darkness of greed and indifference, of weakness and fear, and the so-called human wisdom that exalts self-interest over the welfare of the desperate. Then God’s love and truth will itself shine through the darkness. And, as Isaiah has it, “your own hurts will be quickly healed. Your vindication shall go before you,… you shall call and the Lord will answer,… and the gloom shall become for you like midday.”