ColumnsSunday’s Word

Salt of the earth, light to the world

February 9, 2020


Is 58:7-10

Share your bread with the hungry

Ps 112:4-9

The just one is a light in darkness

1 Cor 2:1-5

Paul speaks of his weakness

Mt 5:13-16

Salt of the earth, light to the world


It is the hope of anyone writing a column about the Sunday readings that it would lead people to the Scripture, and not substitute for it. With that in mind, I sometimes write a column about reading the biblical texts. Today is one of those times.

People can be wary of engaging with the biblical writing itself. Here are some ideas that may help.

  • Is it poetry? Be aware that biblical poetry uses repetition, with lines in pairs. The general principle: say it once: then say it again with different words. It may repeat (synonymous parallelism), contrast (antithetical), or simply pretend to repeat, but actually continue the thought (synthetic).
  • What is the passage saying? Be aware of the basic statements, including punctuation, for instance. How many sentences? How do they relate — question and answer? Contrasting different sides or ideas? Does the lectionary reading omit something?
  • What is emphasized? Notice key words and terms. These point to the biblical writer’s primary concerns.
  • What engages our imagination? Images, metaphors, and symbols often carry the main weight of the passage.
  • What is strange? Try to come to terms with unusual words and phrases. Even if they remain obscure, take note of them as a part of the passage that escapes us.
  • Who is speaking in the passage? Watch the pronouns; take note of who is speaking, and to whom. Sometimes these change in the middle of a passage.

With these in mind, let’s look at the readings for today. The passage from Isaiah 58 is a famous statement about true fasting. It is poetry. Furthermore, it has a definite “if/then” structure, in four-line stanzas:

[If you] Share your bread with the hungry, …

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, …

Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer, …

If you remove from your midst oppression, …

And then the wrap-up, repeating the opening ideas:

If you bestow your bread on the hungry, …

then light shall rise for you in the darkness, …

While it is not necessary to notice this artful pattern of writing, I suspect Isaiah would appreciate it if you did. In any case, this kind of poetic skill is part of what made his work memorable.

In the letter to the Corinthians, Paul is being ironical (he is often even sarcastic). Here he is dealing with a rival, Apollos, famous for his eloquence. So Paul downplays his own wisdom, with the idea that in this way it showcases the wisdom of God, not letting Paul get in the way. Of course, the enjoyable part is that this already is a masterful rhetorical ploy.

The Gospel reading consists basically of two powerful image — “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world.” Here we have an example of how metaphors and symbols can carry a passage. The meaning of Jesus’ description of his disciples is contained in these two images, and invites exploration of them.

The salt is useless if it loses its taste, for that is all it has to offer. Without that, it is nothing. And the light is to be set on a lamp stand. If it is hidden, it isn’t doing much good. Again, it misses the point of being a light. These remarks are only a first suggestion. The image invites imagination. Where does it take us? How do these images capture discipleship?

It is true that the way a passage is stated is only a part, but it is an important part. Writing that survived to become part of the biblical canon was worth reading.

For reflection: The Bible comes to us as literature, and does its work as literature.

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.