In order to get the full impact of what Jesus says today in the very short Gospel lesson, I think it's helpful if we remind ourselves of what has been the progress of the reading of the Gospel since we started this new church year. Jesus first came along and began to proclaim, "The reign of God is at hand. It's ready to break forth, where God's love will rule over everything, and fullness of life will be there for everyone." It's ready; it's at hand. But then, "Change your lives," Jesus tells people. Last Sunday he began to show us what it meant to live according to his way, to follow him, to live according to his values. That's how the reign of God will break forth.
A Sunday or two ago he had begun to gather together disciples, people who were willing to follow him. Today, we are the ones that he has called. So he's saying to us, "The reign of God is at hand. Change your lives." Today he makes it very explicit. He says, in a sense, if you do that, if you change your lives and live according to my values, you'll be the salt of the earth, a preservative, giving fragrant goodness to all creation and you'll be a light. People will be able to follow you and your example and discover God, discover the reign of God.
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
We might ask ourselves what does it mean to be light or salt, especially the term "light?" It's very clear in that first lesson today from the book of the prophet Isaiah where Isaiah, as I mentioned earlier, is preaching to the people who have returned from exile. They're very discouraged because the task of rebuilding the temple, rebuilding their cities is overwhelming. They've undertaken a fast hoping, in a sense almost, to demand from God results because they're fasting.
Isaiah, preaching to them on behalf of God, criticizes their fast, "Look, on your fast days you push your trade and you oppress your laborers. Yes, you fast but end up quarreling, striking each other with wicked blows. Fasting as you do will not make your voice heard on high." The fast is only external — sackcloth and ashes. Everybody sees your fasting or giving up food — that sort of thing. God says through Isaiah, "Is that the kind of fast that pleases me? Is fasting merely bowing down one's head, and making use of sackcloth and ashes? Would you call that fasting?"
No, here's what God says fasting is, "See the fast that pleases me: breaking the fetters of injustice." Number one in the Beatitudes: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. This is so essential to the message of Jesus. It comes right out of this book of the prophet Isaiah, "Unfastening the thongs of the yoke those who are bound up. Fast by sharing your food with the hungry, bring to your house the homeless, clothe the one you see to be naked, and do not turn away from your own kin."
Then Isaiah says, "Then will your light break forth as the dawn." That's how we are to be a light to the world; it's so clear. Jesus builds on this in the Beatitudes, but as he goes on now in that Sermon on the Mount (we'll hear more of that), Jesus shows us what it means to be light for the world: to guide people by example into the reign of God, again, where there will be peace and fullness of life for every person.
Every one of us at some point in our life heard Jesus ask, "Will you follow me?" That's what he said to those first disciples, and obviously we said, "Yes." We're here; we're members of his community; we're his disciples. We are the ones who are to be the light of the world by sharing our goods with others, breaking those shackles of poverty and injustice, overcoming violence and hatred and killing by forgiveness and love and peace. It's a very difficult call. Maybe we haven't thought about it very deeply and profoundly.
But Jesus says, "You are the light of the world." If the reign of God is really going to break forth in its fullness, it will be because of people like us, who are disciples of Jesus, who listen to his word and try to follow it. That's how we will be light; that's how the reign of God will break forth. But I don't think it's difficult for any of us to realize that right now we live in a world where those values of Jesus are not taken very seriously, perhaps even by we who are here.
I shared this once before — if you heard it, you'll recall it, but otherwise it may be a good example for us. In Jordan, a tiny country in the Middle East being overwhelmed with refugees, are they building a wall to keep them out? No. Are they driving them back? No. They welcome them. They service them. There are orders of religious sisters, but they're facing, according to this article, their darkest hour. They desperately need support if they are to continue their mission providing care and hope to the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees seeking their help.
The Dominican sisters run two hospitals in Jordan. They help to provide medical care to all of these refugees. Many of the Syrian refugees whom the sisters care for are mothers and young children fleeing their country because of the violent, horrific war that is taking place there. Some of them have come to our country and we push them back. How is that being a light to the nation, a light to the world?
The spirit in our country right now is a very troubled spirit because I think we who are followers of Jesus have not taken seriously enough his message that we are to be the light in a world where there is much darkness from violence and hatred and killing in our own country but also internationally. Isn't it important that we try to find the way to change the situation, that we become as the Gospel says like a city on the hill — everybody can see and come to it, that we become a light that breaks back the darkness of suffering and violence and killing?
We can do that in very simple ways every day, almost, by being generous, helping the poor right here in our midst. This very community does that very well, but we have to continue our efforts and intensify those efforts because the problems are so great. But especially on a national level, it seems to me we have to work to change much in the way we interact with other nations, especially those nations where there is violence and people are fleeing. They don't come because they're looking for an easy life. They come because they're fleeing violence and killing, trying to save their children.
We have to develop attitudes of peace, love, caring, and mercy — all of those things that Jesus describes himself, or that Isaiah describes so well in the first lesson. When we begin to do that as individuals and spread that spirit in our country, then we can be a light to the nations. We can be the disciples of Jesus who bring forth the reign of God. We can look forward to peace and fullness of life for ourselves, but also, as the reign of God breaks forth completely, bring that peace and fullness of life to all of the nations. The reign of God present in our midst — Jesus proclaimed it, says it's at hand, and calls us to work with him to make it happen.
[Homily given at St. Philomena, Detroit, Mich., Feb. 5, 2017. The transcripts of Bishop Thomas Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]