Homily for February 9

Dung cakes burning in oven

Homily for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
(Scriptures for today's Mass)

Audio for homily

“You are the salt of the earth.”
That’s what Jesus said and that’s what he calls us to be.
Now, we might think he’s talking about the salt
we sprinkle on popcorn
or add to the pot of soup cooking on the stove.
But there’s another layer of meaning in Jesus’ words,
something we might miss 2,000 years after he spoke them.

If you’ve visited in the Middle East you may have seen clay-ovens*
next to houses along the roadside.
Such ovens have been used for thousands of years
and often one large oven like this served a small village.
That’s how it was in the time of Jesus.
The common fuel for such ovens wasn’t oil or gas or wood;
these clay ovens were fueled by camel or donkey dung.
(see the illustration at the top of this post)
In Jesus’ day, one of the duties of young girls was to collect the dung,
mix salt in it and mould it into patties
to be left out in the sun to dry.
Even today in the Middle East, in many Third World countries,
in parts of Haiti, for instance,
such dung patties are still used as fuel in these simple ovens.

A slab of salt was placed at the base of the oven
and upon it, the salted dung patties.
Salt has catalytic properties, which cause the dung to burn
but eventually the salt slab loses its catalytic ability
and becomes useless.
Or, as Jesus put it:
“It is good for nothing but to be thrown outside
to be trampled underfoot,”
where it could be used to provide a sure footing on a muddy road.

And that’s what Jesus had in mind when he told us,
 “you are the salt of the earth,”
that we’re to be the salt, the catalyst for the earth-oven.
(In fact in Aramaic and Hebrew, the languages Jesus spoke,
one and the same word means “earth” and “clay-oven.)

For Jesus, to be “salt for the earth, salt for the clay-oven”
is to start fires and make things burn.
And of course if his disciples do this,
they will generate, they will be the “light of the world.”
Salt and light, then, aren’t two distinct images here
but rather one image with two aspects, two dimensions.

It would be much easier for us if Jesus had in mind
a salt-shaker from the dinner table or the cook’s shelf
but he was talking about something much “earthier” than that. 

Too earthy?  Then we might look to today’s first scripture
for some another approach.
There the Lord tells us
that our light will rise and shine on the world
- if we share our bread with the hungry
- if we shelter the homeless,

- if we clothe the naked
- if we’re careful not to turn our back on our own
- if we cease our lies and malicious speech
- if we free the oppressed
if all this, then will our light break forth like the dawn…

In the Intercessions at Mass every weekend, we pray for:
 “a spirit of generosity
in the hearts of us who have more than we need…”
Regardless of how much more we might want and desire,
virtually all of us do have more than we need 
and the bounty that is ours, is ours in a world
where children still make dung patties to fuel the family oven,
at least for those times when there’s something to put in the oven.

So Jesus is calling us to start fires and get things cooking,
to fuel a light bright enough to make a real difference
in the darkness of poverty and hunger.

In about three weeks the season of Lent will begin, calling us
to deeper prayer, to fasting, and to caring for the poor.
It’s not to early to start thinking about how each of us
will live Lent this year.
How will the salt of our lives, yours and mine,
fuel the fire and the oven to feed the hungry?
How will the light of our faith, yours and mine, shine
on those who live on the margin, in the shadows of us
who have more than we need?

How will we be salt?  How will we be light?
The Eucharist we celebrate on the Lord’s Day
is meant to nourish us to live as followers of Jesus.
As we come to the altar today, pray with me
that Jesus might light a fire in our hearts
and fan to flame the light of faith that is already ours.

Pray we might, indeed, be
the salt of the earth and light for the world.

*See John Pilch for the source of this cultural background


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