The second of the two short parables in today’s Gospel reading is self-explanatory. Lampstands are not common in homes today, but the principle of lighting a room adequately is familiar to everyone. If the meaning of the metaphor wasn’t obvious enough, Jesus explained it by saying, “your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” (Mt. 5:16)
The first short parable, on the other hand, has been a source of puzzlement to Scripture scholars for quite a long time. The parable is problematic because of the statement about salt losing its taste. (Mt 5:13) The flavor of Sodium Chloride doesn’t fade or change in the way that the flavor of prepared foods can become bland after an extended period of time. The salt in salt mines, for example, has remained unchanged for millions of years; the forgotten things at the back of your refrigerator, by comparison, probably haven’t fared so well.
This strange inference by Jesus led to creative speculation by scholars. Some opined that this was a statement about the possibility of salt becoming contaminated with another mineral; others suggested that it was a reference to the possibility of misidentifying a mineral that had a similar appearance to the salt used to season food.
The difficulty in translating this text of Matthew’s Gospel has added to the varied and conflicting attempts to understand it. If rendered literally, the text asks, “What if salt becomes foolish?” The Greek word for “foolish” had an infrequent usage that meant “bland.” The infrequent usage was applied to the translation of this word in Matthew’s Gospel because it could be seen as making some tiny bit of sense as a reference to the flavor of salt. The obvious difficulty remains, namely, that salt cannot lose its saltiness. In recent years, however, John J. Pilch, SJ has proposed an explanation that is both satisfying and historically verifiable. *
According to Pilch, Jesus’ metaphor refers to the practice of cooking food in an oven constructed of dried clay (earth). These “earth ovens,” which are still used today in the middle east, relied on a block of salt that acted as a catalyst to promote the burning of the poor-quality fuels used by most people at the time. After repeated exposure to heat, the salt block would lose its catalytic properties and need to be replaced. The first short parable should, therefore, be translated, “You are like the salt block placed in an earthen oven. When the salt block becomes dull, what can make it effective again?”
This recent scholarship indicates that a more common meaning of the Greek word for “foolish” makes sense in reference to an earthen oven. If the word is translated as “dull,” a common ancient usage, then it can be seen as a valid observation from the ancient world. When the catalytic ability of a salt block faded because of heat exposure, the fire (and its salt block catalyst) would be observed to become dull.
Perhaps, at this point, the overabundance of detail in the above narrative begins to make sense. If a heat-damaged salt catalyst in an earthen oven is described as dull and/or producing a dull flame, then both short parables employ the image of fire or light as a metaphor. In the first light metaphor, the burning oven has dimmed to the point of being ineffective. In the second light metaphor, the burning lamp is made effective by placing it on a lampstand where it fills a room with light. The two parables, then, fit together thematically as contrasting examples of the absence and presence of light.
The contrast between dim and bright light fits with a recurring theme in Matthew’s Gospel, as well. The Gospel author provides numerous examples of the contrast between faithfulness and faithlessness. The parable of the sheep and the goats is a well-known example. (Mt 25:31-46) The warnings in the “little apocalypse” about two people side-by-side, in which “one will be taken and one will be left,” is another example. (Mt 24:40-41) These warnings are always directed to the baptized and never to the unbaptized. These warnings are not intended to be condemnations of those outside the group of Jesus’ disciples; rather, they are warnings about the necessity for the baptized to persevere in faith.
In this light (apologies for the pun), Jesus’ summary statement takes on new meaning. When he said, “your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father,” he was explaining both short parables. (Mt. 5:16)
The Gospel author used these, and other metaphors, to illustrate the fact that faith is true when it is practiced consistently throughout one’s life. Those who practice Jesus’ teachings habitually spread the light of God’s mercy in the way that a burning lamp spreads its light around a room. Conversely, those baptized who do not practice the Lord’s commands are like dull fires that produce a disappointingly insufficient amount of light and heat.
Adequate discipleship, then, is like adequate lighting: it fills the whole surrounding space. (Mt. 5:15) Inadequate discipleship, on the other hand, is pointless; it is like something “worthy only of being walked upon.” (Mt 5:13)
These two short parables about inadequate light compared to adequate light illuminate (apologies for another pun), the value of participating in the diocese’s annual Catholic Ministry Appeal. The Catholic Ministry Appeal funds affordable housing for the elderly, Foundations of Life Pregnancy Centers, ministry to youth and young adults, marriage preparation, campus ministry for university students, and much more. Supporting the Catholic Ministry Appeal is an effective way to let your light shine so that others may glorify God.
Our parish goal this year is $76,364. Last year we met our goal because all of you repeated the pledge you had made in the previous year. I ask you please to do the same; repeat the pledge you made last year. If you didn’t pledge last year, please consider participating this year. You can pledge online at: https://www.givecentral.org/appeals-form-registration/acp636263cac0091/user/guest
Baptism requires that we evaluate regularly our effectiveness as disciples that our light might shine and, thereby, fill the whole world with the light of God’s mercy. There’s nothing more satisfying than having adequate light with which to see and nothing more consoling than having light in darkness. Jesus said, “your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” (Mt. 5:16) Your light can shine through your participation in this year’s Catholic Ministry Appeal. Please consider making your pledge today.
* John J. Pilch, “Salt for the earthen oven revisited,” https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v67i1.826, (April 2011)