The Sermon on the Mount and the National Prayer Breakfast

What happened when a conservative Catholic scholar highlighted Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount at the National Prayer Breakfast? Homily for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Salt (photo: Register Files / CC0)

It’s a common saying that a homilist should prepare to preach with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. This week, as I was praying and meditating about our Lord’s teaching about being salt and light in the Sermon on the Mount, something remarkable happened: Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount made national news. I’ll come back to that!

Our Lord speaks to us about being the salt of the earth and the light of the world in the first of three Gospel readings in the weeks ahead from the Sermon on the Mount, which has been called the “Magna Carta of Christianity” — that is, the blueprint or road map of life according to Jesus’ teaching, which is life in imitation of Christ himself.

If we really want to understand what it means to be salt of the earth and light of the world, we should go home and read the whole Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, 6, and 7. Especially the rest of Matthew 5, which we’ll be hearing more of next Sunday and the following.

Next week we’re going to hear how just because you don’t actually kill someone, if you lose your temper at them, if you hate them, if you regard them with contempt, that’s the same as killing them in your heart. Or if you don’t actually commit adultery, but you look at someone you’re not married to and in, in your heart, in your imagination, you foster desires and harbor fantasies of polluted acts, that’s the same as committing adultery in your heart.

That’s next Sunday. The following Sunday, just before Ash Wednesday, we’re going to hear about perhaps our Lord’s most challenging teaching: loving and praying for our enemies.

This is what it means, in part, to be salt of the earth and light of the world. It means to live the Sermon on the Mount, to be different, as Jesus was different.


Light of the World

“You are the light of the world.” “The just man is a light in darkness to the upright,” the psalmist sings in today’s responsorial psalm.

Do you know who else Jesus said was the “light of the world”? Himself! Twice, in John’s Gospel. In John 8, debating the Pharisees, our Lord said, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” And then in the next chapter, John 9, at the start of the story of the man born blind, he said:

We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.

Why does he say “As long as I am in the world”? Because the time will come, as he says later in John 17, when “I am no more in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you, holy Father.”

Where is our Lord right now? Ascended into heaven and seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.

While he was in the world, Jesus was the light of the world — but now that he is no more in the world, but we are in the world, we are called to be what he was. The light of the world. We are called to be Jesus himself, the “light who enlightens every man.”

In the famous words of St. Teresa of Ávila:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people.

This is what it means to be the light of the world: We must be Jesus to those around us. We must be his body on earth.


Salt of the Earth

“You are the salt of the earth.” What does salt do? Salt brings out the flavor in food; it makes bland food taste better, but it also helps us to appreciate the distinct taste of every kind of food. We might say salt reveals food, just as light reveals the world. As long as the salt stays salty! If it doesn’t — how are you going to season tasteless salt?

Jesus calls us to be different. The world wants us to conform, to get with the program — whatever program that is. We must not conform. “Do not be conformed to the world,” says St. Paul in Romans 12, “but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” We need to think differently, like Jesus. Not just like a good person! We need the mind of Christ, who became a servant and died for us while we were yet sinners, while we were enemies of God.

How do we renew our minds into the image of Christ? Start with the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, 6 and 7. Read it. Let it challenge you. It is challenging! It should challenge us, if we aren’t dulled by familiarity.


The National Prayer Breakfast

I want to be very clear that what I’m about to say is not meant to be any kind of political or partisan statement. But when the Sermon on the Mount makes national news, how can we ignore that?

On Thursday, at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., a conservative Catholic named Arthur C. Brooks talked about what he called a crisis of contempt in our increasingly polarized society and the challenge of Jesus’ teaching on loving our enemies.

Some people say we need more civility and tolerance. I say nonsense. Why? Because civility and tolerance are a low standard. Jesus didn’t say, “Tolerate your enemies.” He said, “Love your enemies.” Answer hatred with love.

Talk about being salt and light! Brooks brought Jesus’ teaching to ground zero of our divided nation, with President Trump and Nancy Pelosi sitting right in front of him.

He didn’t say there aren’t important issues or that people aren’t seriously wrong. He didn’t say we don’t have enemies or that there isn’t hatred and even persecution. Rather, he challenged his hearers, like Jesus, to answer hatred with love.

While he was speaking, Brooks asked how many people present love someone they disagree with politically. Some people raised their hands; the president did not.

When he stood up, the president said, “Arthur, I don’t know if I agree with you.” The president went on to praise people he called “fighters” who sometimes “hate people.” Then he added, “I’m sorry. I apologize. I’m trying to learn. It’s not easy.” But he made very clear that Jesus’ teaching about loving our enemies — not necessarily liking but loving people who persecute or oppose us in ways we consider unjust — is not something he really understands.

I don’t say this to disparage the president or to make any kind of judgment regarding him! Far from it. Many Catholics think and feel in practice just as the president does about those we consider our enemies, even if we wouldn’t say it out loud.

Let’s be clear: To hate one’s enemies, to hate people who do or stand for what we consider evil, or what really is evil, is natural and human. And if we can honestly make our own the president’s words, “I’m sorry. I’m trying to learn; it’s not easy,” and really mean them, that may be the best place to begin renewing our mind into the mind of Christ.


Putting the Lamp on a Stand

You’ve probably heard the saying that it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. That makes it sound easier than it really is, because darkness doesn’t actually do anything; it doesn’t fight back, doesn’t push its way into your home and your life, contaminating and ruining whatever it touches.

Let me close with a quick story. In April of 1984 many parts of northeastern New Jersey were struck by record flooding. I was in high school, and our family lived in Pequannock, in Morris County. The Passaic River was in our backyard, and we had to evacuate as the flood waters surrounded and invaded our home.

As the flood waters rose inside the house, my father stayed behind to try to save whatever he could — carry as much as possible from the ground level upstairs. At some point a lamp fell over, fell into the water, and there it lay, glowing under the filthy, polluted water. It was around that time that my dad began thinking about the danger of electrocution. For the moment, though, he picked the lamp up out of the water, set it on a table, and continued working.

I like that illustration of our Lord’s saying about putting the lamp on a stand, because there’s evil in this world that’s more like flood waters than darkness. It’s waiting to gush into our homes and our lives any time we turn on our televisions or reach for our smartphones or open our front door. It’s waiting for us in campaign ads and partisan rhetoric. It wants to knock us down, suck us under, sweep us away. To pull our light beneath the surface.

So many people spend their lives — so many homilists and political speakers fill their time! — cursing and denouncing the flood waters of evil or frantically trying to sweep them out of our homes, when we should be focusing more on the good things that matter. (Read the Sermon on the Mount!)

Share your bread with the hungry, Isaiah tells us in the first reading. Shelter the oppressed and the homeless, clothe the naked; remove oppression, false accusation, and malicious speech from our midst.

If we do this, Isaiah says, light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday.