This passage is more familiar as a Lenten reading. The verses immediately preceding this excerpt pose the question of true fasting. Today’s verses give the answer: True fasting is sharing our bread with the hungry.
But the preceding question is omitted today, since we are not in the Lenten fast. The effect is to throw the emphasis on the consequence of sharing one’s bread: “Then shall your light break forth like the dawn ... then shall your light rise in the darkness.”
This makes the reading appropriate for the post-Epiphany season, which is concerned not only with the epiphany of God in Christ but also with the Christian life as an epiphany of God’s love for us.
The theme of the Christian as a light in the world’s darkness is then taken up in the refrain of the responsorial psalm and in the Gospel.
Psalm 112 sets out the characteristics of the just or righteous person in the style of the wisdom literature. It is to be noted that the refrain, though based on verse 4a of the psalm. does not say quite the same thing.
When the psalm itself speaks of light, this means the reward the upright person receives for well-doing—a state of general well-being as contrasted with “darkness,” that is, affliction.
The refrain, however, distinguishes between the just and the upright person in a way the psalm does not, and makes the former a light—that is, a source of well-being—for the latter.
When analyzed, the thought of the refrain is really far from clear, though its intention is obvious, namely, to relate the psalm to the Old Testament reading and the Gospel, both of which speak of the righteous as a source of light.
One may hope, in the interests of clarity and of faithfulness to the text of Scripture, that this refrain will be reconsidered when the Lectionary comes up for review.
It has often been thought that Paul changed his preaching at Corinth because of his failure at Athens (Acts 17). In preaching to the Stoics and Epicureans there, he had tried to use sophisticated philosophical arguments, replete with literary allusions. So when he got to Corinth, he abandoned this style and concentrated on the message of the cross.
This is unlikely because in writing up Paul’s visit to Athens, the author of Acts probably followed the custom of ancient historians, composing the Areopagus speech himself and putting it on Paul’s lips. It is a sample of the Christian apologetic customary at the time Acts was written.
Accordingly, we must suppose that at Athens, as at Corinth, Paul followed his usual practice of preaching Christ crucified. At Athens his message was refused because the cross was a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles. Intellectuals did not, and still do not, want to hear about human sin and divine salvation through the cross of Jesus Christ—that is both the folly and the stumbling block.
The Corinthians’ present behavior—their cliquishness and their pride in wisdom—is wholly inconsistent with the gospel of the cross as they had received it through Paul’s preaching. The cross of Christ was the Umwertung aller Werte, the denial of all human wisdom and its accompanying pride.
The way the Corinthians are now behaving, one would think that Paul had not preached the message of the cross but lofty and plausible words of human wisdom, like the wandering preachers and charlatans so common in the Hellenistic world, Paul has only his weak words, yet God made these words the vehicle of his “Spirit and power.”
And, after all, they did bring the Corinthians to faith.
The band of disciples, the nucleus of the future Church, is described under three metaphors: salt, a city on a hill, and a light in the world. The passage concludes with the well-known exhortation especially familiar to Anglicans as the first of Cranmer’s invariable offertory sentences and so constantly heard Sunday by Sunday for three centuries: “Let your light shine before men.”
The Sermon on the Mount does not say that the disciples are to become the salt, that they are to become like a city on a hill or make themselves a light amid the darkness of the world. They are all those things, and that because Jesus has called them and they have responded. Rather, they are expected to manifest what they are: “Let your light so shine before men.”
How is this done? By good works.
Our text does not specify what these good works are. It is more concerned to insist that good works are not the meritorious deeds of the disciples themselves, for the world that sees them does not praise the disciples for them, but the heavenly Father.
The good works of the disciples point away from themselves to the grace of God through which they were wrought.