Jesus said to his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world.” In the ancient world, salt was one of the most important necessities of life, especially for preserving and seasoning food. So too was light for obvious reasons. Both are still vitally important today. What was Jesus saying when he used these two images? He was telling his disciples that they have a vital role to play in the world through their good deeds.
When religious practice is divorced from life a vital element is missing. It is like salt that has lost its taste, or a lamp that no longer gives light. But when religious practice leads to deeds, a very effective witness is given.
One day a man visited Mother Teresa’s home for the poor and the dying in Calcutta. He arrived just as the Sisters were bringing in some of the dying off the streets. They had picked up a man out of the gutter, and he was covered with dirt and sores. Without knowing that she was being watched, one of the Sisters began to care for the dying man. The visitor kept watching the Sister as she worked. He saw how tenderly she cared for her patient. He noticed how as she washed the man she smiled at him. She did not miss a detail in her attentive care for that dying man.
After carefully watching the Sister the visitor turned to Mother Teresa and said, “When I came here today I didn’t believe in God, and my heart was full of hate. But now I am leaving here believing in God. I have seen the love of God in action. Through the hands of that Sister, through her tenderness, through her gestures which were so full of love for that wretched man, I have seen God’s love descend upon him. Now I believe.”
This is surely an example of the kind of thing Jesus had in mind. When he tells us that we must let our light shine, the light he is talking about is the light of our good deeds, especially our deeds of love. People take notice of good deeds. Our good deeds don’t have to be as spectacular as the above example. Generally they will be much simpler, much more ordinary. But that doesn’t mean they can’t give effective witness to the light.
When Jesus tells us to let our light shine before people, he doesn’t mean that we should advertise our good deeds, much less crow about them. He is asking us to do them. If we do them they will speak for themselves.
A good life is a strong and effective witness, and in itself is a proclamation of the Gospel. The light will shine when one is a genuine person, when one sees that the truth is told, that justice is done, when one exercises mercy and shows compassion and love. In order to produce its effect saIt has to be mixed in with the food. And a light has to be put in a high place in order to be able to reach people. So we Christians have to be in the world. But we must not allow ourselves to be absorbed by the world. “The world today needs Christians who remain Christians” (Albert Camus).
As Christians we have a very positive role to play in the world. We have something to offer, something the world desperately needs, even though it may not always welcome it. We should not be shy or apologetic about our role. A certain boldness and courage are called for.
The task is not one for the individual Christian only but for the Christian community as a whole. It is easier – and more effective – to witness to Christ as a member of a supportive community.