Let your light so shine – 5th Sunday before Lent Year A 2011

One of the minor disagreements in our house is that Amalia tends to like lots of seasoning in the cooking, and I prefer plain. It’s hard to find a balance, but it doesn’t matter too much, because I seldom approach the cooker.. Most dishes need a bit of salt if they are to be delicious, and when you get it right you don’t notice the salt itself, merely the yumminess of the food. According to Jesus in today’s Gospel, we christians are meant to be like salt, making the world a tastier place, without drawing attention to ourselves. Or, like the humble oil lamp, we are to make the world brighter. When you put the light on, you don’t spend the rest of the night staring at the bulb – you get on with your reading or sewing or playing. “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father in heaven.” Notice that we are to improve the world not by talking but by doing. Talking and discussing have their place, but concrete action, however humble, does the business. All the conferences of bishops may be of less value in this respect than the helping hand freely given.

Now these good works of ours are to be seen, but in a transparent way, so that what is seen is not us but the goodness of God. The point of doing good deeds is not to make us feel good, or to make our organisation look good. Of course our motivations are never pure, some element of self-importance always creeps in – which obscures the light we are meant to be shedding. There is an old Jewish story of a godly man whom God wanted to reward for his good deeds. He asked that through him more good deeds might be done, but that he would not know about them. So it was arranged that when his shadow fell on someone behind him it would cause healing. Like the salt, like the light, we are to make the place better for everyone, without drawing attention to ourselves.

The second half of our Gospel prepares us to consider what these good deeds might be. The scribes and Pharisees would say it was the minute keeping of the Law in every detail – every “jot and tittle”, every little letter or stroke of a pen. Some Christians, inspired perhaps by St Paul’s emphasis on the freedom of the Spirit, may have wanted to abolish the rules entirely. Matthew rejects both these ideas. He is quite clear that the legalistic spirit of rabbinic judaism is inadequate – “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven“. But he also says, “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments will be least in the kingdom of heaven“.

Matthew speaks of Jesus as the one who does not destroy the Law but fulfils it. He sees the entire Hebrew Scriptures (The Law and the Prophets) as pointing to Jesus. Jesus is the one who fulfils the Law’s requirements in their totality – here is the embodiment of the Law in practice. In him the Law is complete, and thus in a sense finished. When you have completed a crossword puzzle, there is nothing more to be done. Having fulfilled the Law, Jesus is authorised to re-interpret it and re-apply it. In next week’s reading, we will hear something of this re-interpretation.

For christians, some of the old laws are redundant, such as the kosher food rules. Others are confirmed as eternally applicable, such as the commandment to love God and neighbour. And some are confirmed and made more stringent, such as the teaching that our neighbour includes our enemy as well as our friend. Whatever way we are to keep the commandments, it is in the spirit of Jesus, after the example of Jesus, and it is not to make us feel good or righteous or superior, but to brighten the world and make it a better place for others.

Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father in heaven.”

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