True charity is the spice, and light of life

Father John A. Kiley

This coming Sunday’s three Scripture readings combine the forceful words of the prophet Isaiah, the insightful phrases of the apostle Paul and the homely expressions of the Master Himself to communicate broadly the richness of the Gospel message.

Isaiah foreshadows the practicality of Christ’s Good News with words that could be taken from a parish bulletin or diocesan newspaper. The ancient prophet urges his readers to share their bread with the hungry, to be mindful of the homeless and to provide needed clothing for the less fortunate. These appeals are repeated every week in parish announcements as requests for non-perishable foods are made to the faithful, as parishioners are reminded of the diocesan “Keep the Heat On” campaign, and as generous volunteers are called to assist at shelters like Emanuel House in South Providence.

Isaiah also insists that true charity will venture beyond practical relief toward the elimination of systematic injustice as well. He calls for the eradication of all forms of oppression, falsity and malice. True charity certainly relieves the symptoms of injustice like hunger and homelessness. But genuine charity will strive even more to eliminate the causes of injustice — family dysfunction, class distinction and scanty employment. The psalm response continues Isaiah’s theme praising the just believer for his or her lavish generosity with both time and treasure.

St. Paul, for his part, insists that the Gospel message must be practical in its utterance if it is to be effective. The apostle chooses to avoid lofty words and lordly eloquence, which his urban Corinthian readership might have expected, opting instead to rely on an explicit and graphic presentation of the work of Christ. In the mind of St. Paul, “Jesus Christ and him crucified” reveals the whole message of salvation. The Cross speaks of the seriousness of sin which provoked Christ’s death, of the intensity of love which prompted Christ’s sacrifice and of the power of God which is displayed even in the midst of Christ’s human suffering. The Gospel is preached best not with wise words, but with honest deeds.

As might be expected, Jesus, the master of the Good News, calls early in his celebrated Sermon of the Mount for evident, obvious and apparent good deeds. “Just so,” Jesus insists, “your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” Jesus uses two familiar and distinctive metaphors to illustrate his point. Salt is a handy, but dynamic spice that perks up any meal. Salt transforms bland food into a tasty meal. Salt can also sharply sting. There is nothing dull about salt. Light similarly transforms a dark room into a brilliant chamber. Light in excess can even blind the eye. So there is nothing dull about light either. By choosing two rather perky symbols, salt and light, as hallmarks of the Good News, Jesus, like Isaiah and like Paul, is demanding that the Gospel message be propagated through plain, palpable, perceptible human activity.

Isaiah was very practical with his demands for food, clothing and shelter as manifestations of one’s inner commitment. St. Paul was very practical with his striking image of the crucified Christ on Calvary as the premier demonstration of who Jesus truly was, and what his ministry was all about. And Jesus, too, is very practical in his call that a Christian’s good works should be as biting as salt and as sunny as light. The Christian Gospel is more than good theory, and even more than good theology.

Certainly, each of the popes of the modern era has spoken forcefully on the need for practical good works if Christianity is to live up to the high standards of the Master and be an authentic continuation of his Gospel ministry. Pope Francis happily re-enforces this Gospel message in his own salty and illumined manner when he writes: “Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others. He hopes that we will stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people.” God’s eternal love made humanly visible through charity and through justice is indeed Good News!