In the midst of a recent arctic freeze in Minnesota, I sent out a tweet: “Best part of a #polarvortex is ability to be in a warm house and to cozy up and enjoy time with the family. Pray for those who are not warm.” Someone, known on Twitter as @RiskyLiberal, read my tweet and found it lacking: “Don’t pray for them—HELP them! Take some blankets, winter coats, MONEY to your local shelter TODAY.”
My initial response was to take to Twitter to defend prayer as a genuine means of help, but as I reflected on the tweet, I had to admit, she (or he) had a point. Prayer is not insignificant for a Christian—indeed it is one of the most powerful spiritual forces for good in the world—but it must be grounded in concrete action, not warm and fuzzy sentiment. I was chastened and responded, “It’s a good point! Help must be tangible.”
As God’s voice, Scripture seems designed to speak to each of us individually in whatever spiritual place we find ourselves. When I went to read the Scripture for this column, it was no surprise to find that the readings for the week spoke directly to my situation. Yet the voice of God was also found in a simple Twitter exchange. Echoes of @RiskyLiberal resonated for me in the readings from the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah calls on the faithful to “share your bread with the hungry,” to “shelter the oppressed and the homeless” and to “clothe the naked when you see them.” Only when the people respond to actual human need, says Isaiah, will “light” emerge. Isaiah links God’s response to the “call” and “cry,” the prayers of the faithful, to their tangible actions for those in need.
At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus draws on this same prophetic tradition when he says, “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world.” Who is being addressed? Who is “you”? In both cases, the Greek text uses the plural form for you. It is the apostles of Jesus and the other disciples, the members of the nascent church, who are invited to hear these words and to identify with them, and so too are these words addressed to the church today.
We are called to make these words our own, to heed Jesus’ call to be what we are intended to be: salt and light for the world. This is Jesus’ appeal to the church to live up to its vocation, to bring flavor to the dullness of life, to chase away the darkness with light.
But Jesus warns the church that if it is not fulfilling its mission, if salt is not salty, if light is hidden away and extinguished, then the people of God have lost their purpose, their reason for being. If the church is to live up to its vocation as the “salt of the earth” and as the “light of the world,” Jesus says that the church must let its “light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” It is these good works that make evident the spiritual light of prayer and draw attention not to ourselves but to the transforming power of God.
Jesus outlines these good works throughout the Gospel of Matthew, especially drawing our attention to the corporal works of mercy in Chapter 25. Here, as in Isaiah, Jesus calls us to share bread with the hungry, clothe the naked and meet the needs of the afflicted, including those who are sick or imprisoned.
Certainly, those who are afflicted include those who are suffering from the frigid cold in my neighborhood. Only by responding to these human needs through the good works Jesus calls us to perform will the Christian light “shine before others.” Praying for those in need must lead to action on behalf of those in need, for these actions are concrete signs of God’s light shining in the world. These actions are proof that prayer is not empty words or cheap empathy, but the active presence of God in individual lives and the church compelling us to transform the darkness with light and the cold with warmth.