Jesus teaches us that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13,14) as we fulfill our Baptismal promises of Christian witness and service. Salt keeps food from corruption and flavors it. Christian witness alerts the world to evils, and Christian practice flavors it with goodness. Light dispels darkness and accentuates truth and beauty.
During the Baptism ritual, a child receives a candle lit from the Paschal Candle, representing the risen Christ. Just as the moon reflects the light of the sun, our light reflects the light of Jesus, who reveals: “I am the light of the world.” (John 9:5) With our cooperation, Jesus illuminates and ignites our apostolic work.
These teachings direct the charitable works that are essential to our salvation: “…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” (Matthew 25:35-36) God’s grace guides us on these endeavors.
Jesus calls attention to the danger of losing union with Him by asking, “…but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored?” (Matthew 5:13) He continues, “[The salt] is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men.” Harsh and frightening words. Salt-of-the-earth Christians lose strength apart from Jesus.
Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity to serve the poorest of the poor. One day a week, Mother required the sisters to remain in their cloister to renew their union with Jesus so as to reinforce their good intentions, hard work, and expertise. They call it their “day in.” The practice of contemplative prayer displays an accurate understanding of our Lord’s words, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” We are not salt and light on our own merits, but only in union with Jesus through obedience, prayer, and the Sacraments.
But some may consider such Sabbath rest a gross neglect of the poor or even sloth. Indeed, in the grand scheme, would it matter if the Missionaries of Charity and other Christian apostolates withdrew entirely from the world?
History unmistakably demonstrates that over the last century, the free market brought near-miraculous economic prosperity to the world. On the tiny island of Hong Kong, for example, 10 million people prosper because of free enterprise. So why not rely on powerful economic engines and big-budget government programs to alleviate poverty and bring prosperity? Free enterprise has freed more people from the clutches of poverty than Christian or secular not-for-profit agencies could ever hope to accomplish.
Prosperity is often morally seductive. Even the most legitimate of human comforts can make us oblivious to the needs of others, and materialistic ideologies quickly distort the meaning of human existence. Sometimes prosperity comes with a tempting price. “All these will I give thee, if falling down thou wilt adore me.” (Matthew 4:9)
Several years ago, an African cardinal archbishop implored the Tanzanian government not to accept certain types of aid from western countries. He said some developed countries “will stop support[ing] us if we are against homosexuality. It is better to die of hunger than to receive aid and be compelled to do things that are contrary to God’s desire.” He added that “the sin of homosexuality was the cause of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and [is] contrary to God's plan in creation.”
By most measurements, America is the most prosperous country in the world. Yet the majority of “Catholics” in Congress support profound evils degrading marriage, confusing human sexuality, setting men against women, and mother against unborn baby – the effective destruction of the family.
Despite their talents and accomplishments, these elected professionals are “salt” that has lost its taste. They have severed themselves from the teaching of Jesus and no longer keep the world from corruption. Instead, they contribute to human degradation. Prosperity brings physical comforts, but prosperity cannot provide meaning, nor can it save.
So even prosperous countries need the light of Christ in apostolic work. Mother Teresa’s strength and resolve came from the many hours she spent in prayer and worship, allowing the Lord to enlighten her. Her famous reported words about the Missionaries of Charity apply to every Christian, according to our state of life: “My sisters are not social workers, they are contemplatives in the world.”
Hence, Christian charity not only provides a partial “safety net” for those who fall through the cracks of imperfect economic systems but witnesses to the inestimable dignity of every human being created in God’s image.
We may think we can’t do much in the world because we are not the architects of mass production or designers of marvelous computer systems. If so, we’re mistaken. What enduring purposes are served by mass production, computer efficiencies, and even the great abundance of food and creature comforts? Without Jesus, we die in our sins. “For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?” (Mark 8:36)
By holding fast to the Christian faith, we remain the salt of the earth in Jesus – providing the light, the salt, the ballast, the rudder, the direction -- of goodness and virtue for every human endeavor.
Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia.