Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)
06 February 11
Careful Bible study can lead to learning an awful lot of stuff that one would never guess there was to learn and maybe wouldn’t want to learn.
For example, as I was working on my homily the other day, I happened upon a tidbit of chemistry trivia. It offers what I believe is some pretty interesting insight into what Jesus was teaching in today’s gospel about discipleship.
As I thought about this tidbit of trivia, however, I feared sharing it with you, because I thought you just might remember the tidbit more than what Jesus was teaching.
Wrestling back and forth, on the one hand, I figured that if you were to walk away remembering the tidbit of trivia, it’s possible that you might also remember Jesus’ teaching. But, on the other hand, I figured that if I only talk about Jesus’ teaching, as good as that may be, you might forget everything I said. After a lot of hemming and hawing back and forth, I eventually decided to talk about the tidbit chemistry trivia as a way to assist you in thinking about and maybe even remembering Jesus’ teaching.
This tidbit of chemistry trivia has to do with the properties of salt.
Did you know what chemists have known for millennia? No, it’s not that salt cannot lose its taste or saltiness, but that salt can get covered or mixed with impurities which prohibit it from generating its natural chemical interaction. More important for understanding Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel, salt is what chemists call a “catalyst.”
According to John Pilch in his book “The Cultural World of Jesus: Cycle A,” the people during Jesus’ day were quite familiar with the chemical properties of salt, using it to light fires in clay cooking ovens, which resembled what today we call “chimineas.”
Lacking the liquid fuels we have to ignite fires, the ancients figured out a somewhat ingenious way to heat their clay ovens. It took a bit of work, but the outcome of their labors worked pretty well, and so much so, that to this day in many parts of the world, these patties are still used as fuel to fire clay ovens for baking bread and cooking food.
They started by collecting camel or donkey droppings. Then, they mixed the droppings with salt, formed the mixture into patties, and dried the patties in the sun.
I kid you not. This is the image Jesus had in mind when teaching his disciples.
Once dried, the ancients would paint the clay oven with a saline solution, place a slab of salt into the center of the clay oven, and, then, place some of the patties atop the slab of salt. It took a while—sort of like soaking and lighting charcoal in a barbecue today and then waiting for the charcoal to turn grey, unless you happen to have one of those behemoths of a barbecue that work on natural gas—but the combination of the salt and the patties eventually caused a chemical reaction that created enough heat to ignite the patties. This is how the ancients baked bread and made stews.
Pretty clever, no?
After several uses, however, the salt would lose its ability to generate the desired chemical reaction. So, the ancients would repaint the oven with fresh saline solution and replace the used slab of salt with a fresh one. They would then throw the used slab out into the street where people would trample it, grinding the salt back into the earth.
Got the tidbit of chemistry trivia? Think you’re ever going to forget it?
Well, then, let’s consider the more important reason for learning about that tidbit of trivia. What did Jesus mean when he used that image to teach about discipleship?
First: Jesus was not talking here about Morton’s iodized table salt. No, when Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth,” he was alluding to that slab of salt in the clay oven. Through the witness of their lives, God would work through Jesus’ disciples to provide the necessary chemical reaction that would turn useless camel and donkey droppings around them into a fire that would make those hardened, old droppings useful for God’s purposes. Extending the metaphor, these patties would, in turn, provide the fire and heat needed to provide nourishing food—in this sense, nourishing spiritual food, the “bread of life”—for people who were starving. Just as the chemical reaction provided by the slab of salt would ignite a fire, this is how Jesus’ disciples would be “salt” for the world…as those “useless” paddies were transformed to provide the fire and heat God needed to feed His people.
We also need to consider that second image Jesus used—bringing “light” into the world—because in Jesus’ day, as we all know, there was no such thing as artificial light. Absent a full moon, the darkness of night was pretty much pitch black. Normal daily life could be carried on only during the daylight hours. This light “enlightened” the days, enabling people to carry on with their lives.
But, the light Jesus was describing had nothing to do with daylight and carrying on normal life. No, quite the opposite, the light Jesus was describing was the light of God that his disciples would bring to others. This is the light that would enlighten them, that is, enable them to emerge from the darkness of the world in which they found themselves living so that they could live now in the light of God’s truth. Disciples did this as they allowed the power of God within them to catalyze into the fire that would “enlighten” the darkness of the hearth and turn those paddies into embers that, in turn, would provide spiritual food for people hungering for God’s love and mercy.
A disciple’s identity, then, is to be the catalyst who starts fires with the dung of people’s lives so that, as the fire of God’s love and mercy would transform these people, they would, in turn, glorify God by allowing their “weakness” to become God’s “strength.” Disciples see in all of that dung not something useless, but something that the fire of God’s mercy and love can catalyze into new life and light. As we heard the prophet Isaiah tell the people of Israel:
...if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted;
then the light shall rise for you in the darkness,
and the gloom shall become for you like midday.
The gospel challenge for today is, first, to identify all of those patties in our lives who we view as useless and to be avoided if not chucked aside to be trampled upon. Yes, they’ve been shaped by their choices and decisions as well as by their upbringing, experiences, and culture. So what? They’re easily identified because, in English, we have a colloquial expression that we frequently invoke to describe these people. So, who are these patties?
Then, having identified these people, the challenge becomes more difficult because, second, because God has placed us into the center of the chiminea, we must not simply to be near them or in their proximity, but we must allow God to place them upon us, in much the same way that God allowed Jesus to be placed upon the Cross for our salvation. Even more challenging is the fact that we may have to spend a goodly amount of time in this position until the power of God that is within us catalyzes in such a way that we spark the fire that engenders the heat that will transform those otherwise useless patties into useful embers that God can use to feed others.
This is our identity as Jesus’ disciples. We are ineffective—useless, good for nothing, and to be trodden under foot—when we allow other concerns to keep us from being the catalyst that God has created to allow God’s power within us to bring out His divine image in those patties who are dwelling in darkness. Yet, this is how God frees His people from the gloom and darkness of sin, the illusions of pride, as well as the pain and suffering that necessarily follows after people embrace sin.
Looking at those people, perhaps we see only weakness, perhaps even dung. But, we heard St. Paul tell us in today’s epistle, as he studied the mystery of Jesus Christ, St. Paul grew in his awareness that Jesus’ true value came not from how others judged him—a useless patty to be thrown aside and trodden under foot—but what God had planned for Jesus. Likewise for St. Paul. What he learned mattered was not how others judged him or how St. Paul judged himself, but how God had judged St. Paul worthy to be a slab of salt despite his sin. This awareness transformed St. Paul—in a flash of light, we are told—as the fire of God’s love and mercy enabled St. Paul to appreciate how God works through human weakness so that God can catalyze others to turn away from sin and be saved through the power of Jesus crucified dwelling in his disciples..By inviting his followers to be “salt,” Jesus’ disciples make God’s love and mercy present in the world’s darkest recesses. God’s power is manifested through us, as it was through St. Paul, as we allow God to transform us and our lives through the fire of His love and mercy to become salt to all of those patties God places upon us. As Isaiah the prophet reminded the people of Israel:
...do not turn your back on your own.
Then you light shall break for like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
your vindication shall go before you,
and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer,
you shall cry for help, and he will say: “Here I am.”
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