Being Salt and Light In a Time of Division
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
February 7, 2017

Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily for the 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A) on February 5, 2017 at St. Austin Parish in Austin, Texas. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Isaiah 58:7-10; Psalm 112; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; and Matthew 5:13-16.

We believe that both Matthew and Luke had access to the gospel of Mark and to a separate collection of sayings of Jesus. Matthew brilliantly re-arranges the sayings he has in common with Luke to present Jesus as “the new Moses.” Just as there are five books in the Torah, Matthew’s Jesus delivers five teaching discourses. After each discourse, he puts those teachings into action. The first of the five discourses is the most significant and best known: the Sermon on the Mount. We will be hearing from the Sermon on the Mount every Sunday in February (as we also did on January 29 and we will on March 1). 

This discourse is very familiar to us, but that familiarity leads to a danger of hearing it simply as “folk wisdom.” Jesus calls us to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Let us try to hear the call as the challenging, life-giving Word of God that it is! (Need help? Isaiah explains it in the first reading.) Even though we may not have followed God’s commands in the past, God offers us the gift of mercy and invites us to renew our commitment again.

Here, in chapter 5 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us that “your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” But in three-and-a-half weeks, Jesus tells us in chapter 6 – part of this same speech! – to give alms in secret, to pray to our heavenly Father in secret, and to fast in secret. So, which is it? Should we let our light shine before others, or should we hide it under a bushel basket? Does our salt still have flavor?

I think about the two church communities that nurtured me so much before I became a priest. It was only after knowing some of these friends for several years that I learned about the volunteer work that they were doing: serving in soup kitchens, tutoring, advocating for justice, helping the elderly with home repairs, making substantial charitable donations, and so on. It was inspiring! However, I wondered if I had known more about what these friends of mine had been doing sooner, would I have been more inspired to transform myself into salt and light?

In the United States, we are living in interesting times, to say the least. While there are always many changes at the beginning of a new administration, the last two weeks have been filled with changes on a dizzying array of policy fronts. With our media as divided as it is, even after reading several different news sources about each change, it’s hard to determine what’s really going on. 

My guess is that we, as a parish, are fairly evenly divided in our opinions about these policy changes. Some of us believe that these changes are long-overdue changes in how our government should work, and others believe that these changes are a threat to the fabric of our democracy. Clearly, many of us feel passionately about these issues. But, as one St. Austin staff member pointed out, we are united in our concern about political issues: can you remember another year when people talked so little about the Super Bowl?

What’s the right thing to do: whether we approve or disapprove, when should we speak up, and when should we remain silent? When are we supposed to let our light shine, and when are we supposed to put it under a bushel basket? It’s a real struggle. We are not supposed to be of the world, but we are in the world. The Church calls us to be active citizens. The Church only speaks out on issues of faith and morals, and often the moral issues feature competing goods. What some of us think is a well-thought out position consonant with Jesus’ teachings, others may think is missing another, more essential gospel value.

I struggle with this every day, as I know many of you do, too. If I stay silent, friends on both ends of the spectrum say that as a priest, I am required to speak up. But when I do speak up, friends who disagree with my opinion criticize me for being “political.” (And, friends on both ends of the spectrum – liberals and conservatives alike – have accused me of “going too far” and have “unfriended” me on social media.) Some friends claim that my Facebook feed is one of the few places on social media for civil discourse; others say that the people who engage with me on social media are rude. And even when I post something funny that isn’t about politics or religion, other people see insults that I never dreamed of. These days, when I log in to social media, I do so with, as Paul would say, “fear and much trembling,” worried about the latest firestorm I may have created. 

What are we called to do, as Catholic people, no matter where our political loyalties lie? Well, here’s a wonderful quotation from the website (that’s phatmass, spelled P-H-A-T-M-A-S-S, dot com). This was written long before the 2016 election cycle began:

When I talk about greater justice for immigrants, I’m called a Democrat.

When I speak up against abortion, I’m called a Republican.

When I talk about racism and racial inequality, I’m called a Democrat.

When I mention small localized government, I’m called a Republican.

When I support the common good, and solidarity, I’m called a Democrat.

When I say the family should be strengthened, I’m called a Republican.

When I speak up against the death penalty, I’m called a Democrat.

When I refuse to fund contraception, I’m called a Republican.

In truth, I’m a member of an institution that teaches that freedom is when a person no longer acts under the influence of someone else. An institution that encourages free will and free thought. An institution that doesn’t fit inside a man-made box. I’m Catholic.

The other thing to point out is that in the first 11 days of the new presidential administration, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released 8 official statements directly regarding policies proposed by the new administration. Some of them are in favor; others are opposed. Here are the headlines, as stated on the USCCB website itself:

Yesterday, I told Bishop Vásquez that between my column in the bulletin this weekend, this homily, and a statement from him that I’m required to read later in this Mass, I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets phone calls at the Chancery about me. He smiled and said, “I’m sure I will!”

How do we determine when and how to speak up, and when to remain silent? Surely, we will continue to disagree with one another about what’s appropriate and what’s not; but let’s have these discussions in a spirit of charity towards all. Let us pray, as St. Paul did, that “[our] faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.”