5th Sunday of the Year
Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”
A number of years ago, a friend of mine told me that he had recently had a strange experience when he attended the wake of a man he knew only slightly from his business dealings. He said he was speaking with a man who was non-Catholic and a longtime friend and coworker of the deceased man. They were discussing the deceased man, and the non-Catholic friend said that when he was told that the deceased was Catholic he was greatly surprised. “Gee,” he said, “I knew him for years, and I not only had no idea that he was a Catholic, I had no idea that he belonged to any religion.
Perhaps for many, if not most, people in this country that man’s surprised discovery might not really seem so strange, because most Americans seem to think that religion is a strictly private matter and should rightly be kept private, hidden, in the church or at home but not in the public square. But somehow this almost universal secular attitude seems not to square very well with today’s Gospel reading where Jesus tells us that our faith should make us the light of the world and that we are not to hide that light of faith under a bushel basket – today we might say keep it “in the closet.” He says we are to let our light shine before men, that they may see our good works and give glory to the Father. That’s the only way we can truly become the salt of the earth.
Is it possible, then, that a Christian, indeed a Catholic, could actually fulfill this command of Christ to be the light of the world, the salt of the earth, and yet people who have known, associated, or worked with this man for years, perhaps even been a friend for years, would have absolutely no idea that the man was a Christian, a Catholic, or that he had any religion at all?
For instance, suppose a priest died, and at his funeral there were people who had been his friends for years, had perhaps shared his free time, recreated with him, maybe even vacationed with him, who were shocked to find out he was a priest! Do you think Jesus thought that being the light of the world was a part-time job for the priest, that Jesus would greet him at the pearly gates with the salutation welcome, light of the world! But of course Jesus did not just speak these words only to the apostles, but to all his disciples. All the baptized are called to to be the light that enlightens the world and to be the salt that savors the world.
When a man’s religious beliefs are so totally hidden from the people with whom he reularly associates that they have no idea that he even belongs to a religion, then the command of Jesus is certainly not being fulfilled, and the awful warning of Jesus to his Apostles should ring in our ears “but if the salt loses it’s savor, it is good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled under foot.” In other words, it would seem that one either fulfills this command, or we end up worthless disciples, ultimately denying the Lord, and ultimately unfit for his Kingdom. Putting one’s faith in the closet is not a viable option for the true Christian.
On the other hand, we might ask what it means or entails to let one’s light shine before men? Surely we must recognize that our light is only a secondary light which derives its true radiance from the light of Christ. It is our light, but it is always but a reflection of the Lord’s own brilliant light, as the moon reflects the light of the Sun. Believing this truth will certainly keep us from any pride or arrogance in fulfilling this command, but that it must be fulfilled if we are to be his co-heirs in the Kingdom is also deadly certain.
This command also means, as Jesus says, that we are to bring His light into the world precisely by the goodness of our own good deeds, and the goodness entailed here is something quite unique and very special indeed.
To understand this goodness and its powerful light, we need to refer to the subject in Matthew’s Chapter 5 that immediately precede today’s Gospel, and was our Gospel last Sunday, that is, Jesus’ teaching on the Beatitudes. Doing naturally good works is not enough to bring the light that Jesus speaks about here into our world. For this light is no mere natural light, but the supernatural glory that reflects the goodness of Christ himself, and it is His goodness that is reflected by our living out the beatitudes. This great light of Christ shines when we are poor in spirit, humble, meek, grieved by any form of evil, merciful like God, peacemakers, pure in heart, and long-suffering under persecution.
It is these forms of goodness that will profoundly enlighten the world, and it is these good deeds that lead others to give glory to God. They are the salt that savors, because they are so clearly beyond merely human virtue that they will be seen to have come from the Father of Lights.
So just doing naturally good works, like those of a non-believing philanthropist, does not bring the light of Jesus into the world around us.
The good works He speaks about, the good deeds through which we let our light shine before men, are above all these truly supernatural, heavenly, virtuous acts and personal qualities, and men who witness them can, if they have good hearts, recognize that we are Christ’s disciples. No one will have to tell them this fact about us at our death! And if they are good willed men, as believers, they will give glory to the Father, because they recognize that such virtues and beatitides surpass human nature and can only be a reflection of the divine goodness in the world, that supernatural goodness passing through a child of God.
Finally, recall that when Jesus was brought into the Temple for the Presentation, which we just celebrated the other day, Simeon recognized the light that had entered the world in this holy child, and he recognized it as the very glory of God. But Simeon also recognized that this same light would be opposed and just because it was the true light of God. If we reflect the light of Christ in our lives some men will give glory to the Father, but others will oppose us, as they opposed Christ; indeed, they hate the light, because their own deeds are darkness.
Either way, the light generates recognition, not disguise. This light is so powerful that it cannot be hidden, and thus others will inevitably see it. Hopefully they will also give glory to God and not persecute us, but either way, we fulfill the command of Jesus in today’s Gospel. Better for us by far when we stand before our judge that we have been a visible light that was opposed, rather than a hidden light that was not seen at all. Better for us, and better for our world.