“You are a water jug, carrying within you the living water, but if water has lost its ability to quench thirst, what use is it?” “You are a sign, but if the sign is hidden beneath seven foot banks of snow, who will know the way to go? Dig out the sign from the wintery snow and so be a beacon to all those passing by.” Why not, right? Why not these metaphors instead of the ones Jesus used in the Gospel passage for the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time? Any number of images could function to make his point, could they not?
I am not certain they could, at least not with the same singular meaning. It seems to me that the images of “salt” and “light,” which appear immediately after the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, are perfect descriptions of how the followers of Jesus should function and perform in the world.
"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 under foot. "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)
The metaphors call upon Jesus’ followers to be what they are, to live up to the demands of their calling, and if they do not do that they are, in the literal sense of the term, good for nothing. That is, salt and light which do not do the things of salt and light have no other purpose. This is where Jesus’ metaphors function so much better than a water jug, for instance, or a sign. A water jug could carry many different liquids, or even nails, or marbles, or baseball cards. It has more than one purpose, even if it had one intended purpose. A sign can do many things, it can point you in innumerable directions, to many cities, to stop, to go, to yield, to watch out for crossing animals, even though your sign has one specific message. But salt, though it comes in many types, as Food Network types now inform us, has a flavor – it is salty! It makes food salty! Light does one particular thing: it dispels darkness. Light when shone in the darkness makes the darkness, wherever the light is, disappear. If salt is not salty, if light is not …lighty…what purpose do they serve?
Following immediately after the Beatitudes, which express the characteristics of Jesus’ disciples, these two metaphors express the inherent nature of these disciples: by fulfilling the characteristics of Jesus’ disciples – to be meek, hunger after righteousness, poor in spirit, etc. – one becomes salt, adding life-giving flavor to those of the earth, and light, dispelling darkness, wherever one goes. But if the followers of Jesus are not salty and not shining, then, maybe we are just signs hidden in the snow. Or water jugs carrying marbles.
John W. Martens
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