Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time – Year A


Francis J. Barr, O.S.A.
Church of St. Nicholas of Tolentine
Bronx, New York

Is 58:7-10
Ps 112:4-5, 6-7, 8-9
1 Cor 2:1-5
Mt 5:13-16

The Israelites who returned from their Exile in Babylon are a changed people. They are, for the most part, the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of those who were taken away to slavery about 50-70 years earlier. Those who return have learned the harsh lessons that come from their suffering as a family. Now they are willing and able to be the people God can call his own.

In the times before the exile, it seems the people of Israel did not take their obligations to the Lord too seriously. Their practice of the faith was not what the Lord expected. Maybe they took their responsibility to God too lightly. It seems they paid their respects to the Lord, but mostly went about living their lives. By the standards of their time, maybe they were trying to achieve success. They do not seem to have been too good about being God’s people in the truest sense. They are ready to do what God hopes now. Earlier in the book of Isaiah we read, “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; upon those living in a land of gloom…a light has shone.” They have (finally) seen that light. And their burden is now lighter.

They do not return to a land the Israelites would recognize as where they left. The Babylonians did their best to destroy everything and “not leave a stone standing upon a stone.” Despite that, they are delighted to go home to “their” land and start again. They are FREE and can restore the land, rebuild their home and create their society again from the ground up. They will learn again the lessons of self-sacrifice, of sharing and working together. They know what living in deprivation is, so they can make the sacrifices necessary.

Isaiah promises that when they perform the works of charity, they will be blessed. Not only will they walk in the light, they will become like the light themselves. In a sense, everything they touch will turn to gold. Hard work and good will are really very important. But God can multiply the effects of their effort, especially when it comes to what they do for others in charity.

We do not talk about it very often now, yet this is no less true: What we see here are the effects of God’s grace at work. The effect is this. This process changes them. They are simply better for it. More God’s own, the blessings continue to multiply. They are more satisfied in life, and even more successful at what they do, and happier.

The presence of God in this people enables their care for others and fosters in each a more generous attitude overall. Sharing what they have in food and possessions, in what they are able accomplish with their time and generosity have an even more positive effect. Their good will can have the same effect in those whose hearts they reach and extends the works even further.

Unfortunately, this period in Israel lasts about 100 years, from 163-63 BCE, until the Romans come. And some of this is inferred from what we do know. Human nature does not seem to change much over time, though. So, the hearts and minds of people and their resolve to live faithfully seem to drift away over time.

St. Paul knows what human error and weakness are about. He does not boast for himself, he boasts for the Lord. Whatever good he accomplishes, he realizes, does not come from him per se. He tells us that what he does, what success he has in his work of spreading the Word of God are through the power of the Spirit—is grace moving through him to others. Paul tells us in another place that he boasts of his weakness so that the power of God rests upon him. In his weakness, God’s power reaches perfection.

Jesus teaches us to share not just what we have, but who we are through faith. Our good will and good works are done in Him and by Him through us. What we accomplish with and for others through faith, reveals His presence.

We are the salt. We are the light.