The first reading is from the second section in the book of Isaiah. It is the second of three prophetic poems addressing the religious revival after the return from exile. This second piece is about fasting, that is, giving up food and luxuries in order to become better people and more pleasing to God. They used to do this a lot at times of difficulty, of bereavement and at fixed religious times in their calendar. The poem wants to shift them away from these external practices, to the true spirit of living out their faith. The prophet and preacher gets down to the basics in this passage: answering the question what is it that you must do to be a light in the world that you live in. It’s no good the wealthy giving up a few things when they have so many that they don’t miss them; it’s pointless to expect the poor and hungry to give up anything at all. If you have this proper spirit of fasting, even without actually giving anything up, then you will be pleasing to God; then God will hear your prayers for the good things that you pray for; then you will be a light in the community, the light of God’s goodness. Nothing need be added, except perhaps that we need to consider whether we live in this way – for which we have an example in Jesus who is the way the truth and the life.
The second reading from the First letter to the Corinthians is from the beginning of only the second chapter out of sixteen (according to how it has been divided). Paul was well educated both as a Roman citizen and as a Jewish scholar, but in a way this played no upfront part when he preaches in Corinth or as he writes to them here. It is just before this (at the end of Chapter 1) that he expresses the humility he had in coming to the Corinthian followers of Jesus – not with cleverness or great learning but just with the life and love of Jesus. He has already written to them saying they should not be partisan by favouring one leader or another, he had mentioned followers of Apollos as an instance, a person who seems to have attracted some members by his intellectual and skillful preaching. Now Paul develops his thoughts about this. In the verse previous to our reading Paul writes “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” The Corinthians were a lively if sometimes troublesome community, and Paul recalls that he came to them with much trepidation. It is just before this (at the end of Chapter 1) that he expresses the humility he had in coming to the Corinthian followers of Jesus – not with cleverness or great learning but just with the life and love of Jesus. But, following his own recommendations, he doesn’t boast of his success with them, but attributes any good he does to the Spirit of God working through him. This is not unlike the first reading in its stress on the spirit and the right way of doing ‘religious’ things.
In the gospel we read from what we have often called the Sermon on the Mount, which is noted for the Beatitudes (“Blessed are the poor…”), which come just before our gospel reading for today. After the Infancy Narrative in Matthew’s gospel, there are five large sections, each comprising two parts, the first a narrative of some kind and the second a report of things Jesus had taught; so our reading is from the first of these five sections. Jesus uses down to earth language drawing on the things with which the people he speaks to are familiar. They use salt, which just adds something, some improvement, to the food that they eat, if it didn’t do that it may as well be thrown away. The ordinary people would have one lamp per household, so that at night they could see what they needed to and could carry it close to where they needed light. Like salt, Jesus says, your Christian life should improve the lives of others, but you shouldn’t impose too much (boastfully), others should notice the improvement but not who brings it. Again your life as a follower of Jesus should shine out as an example to others and be helpful to them, and should not be hidden away – don’t hide it under a cover. It’s a fine balance we have to have, “don’t be over the top, but don’t hide.”
See Jeffs Jottings – Acts before facts