Home Homilies Michael Whelan SM, PhD Gospel for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) (5 February 2023)

Gospel for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) (5 February 2023)

Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:13-16 – NRSV).


We find similar texts in Mark 9.50 (salt) & 4:23 (light) and Luke 14.34–35 (salt) & 8:16-18 (light).

This text is part of Matthew’s introduction to the Sermon on the Mount – see 5:1-7:29. That introduction has four sections: “the setting (5:1–2), the Beatitudes (5:3–12), the identity of Jesus’ followers (5:13–16), and the teaching about the Law (5:17–20)” (Daniel J Harrington, SJ, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 82).

The metaphors of salt and light become references for the identity of those who will be disciples of Jesus: “That identity is firmly rooted in Israel’s identity as God’s people (Isa 2:2–5). It also has significance for the world as a whole: ‘the salt of the earth’, ‘the light of the world’ that ‘gives light to all in the house’, and the ‘city set upon a mountain’ that is visible to all” (Daniel J Harrington SJ, op cit, 83).

Bearing in mind that this text immediately precedes a section given over to a lengthy reflection in the Sermon on the Mount comparing and contrasting the “Old Law” and the “New Law”, the metaphors of salt and light may be interpreted as pointing to the “New Law” superseding the “Old Law”. (See Henry Wansbrough OSB, “St Matthew” in A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, edited by Reginald C Fuller et al, London: Nelson, 1969, 716j.)


salt: “Strictly speaking salt cannot lose its flavour and remain salt, but in Judaism it can become unclean and needs to be thrown out. Salt is both a spice and a preservative. So is a good teacher. The description of the fate of the salt uses imagery for the divine judgement” (Benedict T Viviano, OP, “The Gospel According to Matthew” in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E Brown SS et al, London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1990, 42:25). The people would have been familiar with the reference to salt, not only as something that made food edible but it is something that makes the offering to God acceptable. Thus in the Book of Leviticus we read: “You shall not omit from your grain offerings the salt of the covenant with your God; with all your offerings you shall offer salt” (Leviticus 2:13). And in the Prophet Ezekiel we read: “You shall present them before the Lord, and the priests shall throw salt on them and offer them up as a burnt offering to the Lord” (Ezekiel 43:24).

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill: The prophecy of Isaiah is “the background” to this text: “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths. …. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!’ (Isaiah 2:2-3 & 5). In Isa 42:6; 49:6 Israel’s vocation is to be a ‘light to the nations’. Paul picked up this theme of Israel’s vocation in Rom 2:19 (‘a light to those who are in darkness’). The light imagery is developed in the sayings in 5:15–16 in which Jesus’ followers are challenged to active engagement in their ‘good works’. The goal of these works is that other people might come to praise God (5:16). The epithet ‘your Father who is in heaven’ (5:16) is characteristically Matthean in comparison with the other nt writers and is a typical Jewish way of talking about God in prayer” (See Daniel J Harrington, op cit, 80.)

Reflection – The Call to Be

In today’s Gospel – Matthew 5:13-17 – we continue with the Sermon on the Mount: “You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world”. In effect, Jesus is saying: “This is who and what you arebe who and what you are!” This profound truth needs to be freed from some misrepresentations.

1968 was a tumultuous year, symptomatic of the time. It was the year of the Prague Spring which prompted the Soviet Union to invade Czechoslovakia, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jnr and Robert Kennedy, the intensification of the anti-Vietnam war protests in many countries, including Australia, and the publication of “Humanae Vitae”, to mention just five of the better-known events. Less well-known is the fact that two emblematic songs were heard for the first time that year. The year began with the Broadway musical, Golden Rainbow, featuring “I’ve gotta be me” – made famous by Sammy Davis Jnr – and ended with “I did it my way” – made famous by Frank Sinatra.

The cultural mood that emerged at that time and is represented in the two songs, mimicked – and largely obfuscated – a profound truth of our faith. We are called to become who and what we are, unique individuals made in the image likeness of God, baptized into Christ. We are instruments of God’s love, sacraments of God’s Presence in the world. This is what we are!

On the face of it, Sammy Davis Jnr and Frank Sinatra might have been repeating – or at least echoing – that deep truth of our faith. I think it is fair to say, however, that they probably would not have been thinking of the Christian Faith Tradition when they sang those songs.

The words of the Prophet Isaiah, announcing the role of Israel in history, inform Jesus’ words: “I am the Lord, I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (42:6-7). Jesus is bringing God’s intention to fulfilment. He reminds his disciples of their part in this. Like Israel of old, they are to be “a living covenant, a people who through demonstration of their covenant faithfulness will draw all peoples and nations into a bonded relationship with their only God and Father (Isaiah 45:20-22)” (Adrian Leske, “Matthew” in William R Farmer editor, The International Bible Commentary, Collegeville, MINN: Liturgical Press, 1998, 1272).

Presence is everything. The way of being present in the world is much more important than what we say to the world. Even what we do for the world depends for its efficacy largely on the presence that is expressed in our actions. If we are true to who and what we are, our presence will in some tiny way bear God’s Presence. Even in the most insignificant moments, even in silence, our presence can give hints of God’s Presence.

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