Modern readers of Scripture often overlook the importance ancient Middle Eastern culture placed on being recognized. It wasn't enough to be good at or gifted with something; to be "someone," people had to recognize your expertise or gift. A person was nothing without such acknowledgment.

That's why Sunday's liturgical readings conveyed a somewhat different meaning to their original readers than they do to us. The promise, "Your light shall break forth like the dawn!" and the statements, "You are the salt of the earth....You are the light of the world!" assured Third-Isaiah and Matthew's communities that not only are they significant, but also that the day is coming when others also will recognize that significance. They'll eventually acknowledge the importance which these communities already believe they enjoy.

But no matter the culture, our Sacred Authors believe that God's disciples will discover that their anticipated recognition always involves very "insignificant" actions, actions rooted in service of others.

Light of world

Third-Isaiah sets the theme (Is 58:7-10). "Share your bread with the hungry," he proclaims, "shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own." The prophet ends today's passage by reminding his people of the only kind of light they need to have turned on them.

"If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday."

Only by searching for the divine light in the helpless will Israelites discover Yahweh's light shining through and for them.

Jesus, following the lead of Third-Isaiah, speaks in similar terms to His Sermon on the Mount community (Mt. 5:13-16). If they're to become the salt, the light and the city set on a mountaintop, they must first become people who perform acts overflowing with goodness for others. If they don't, they'll end up being good for nothing -- "unsalty salt," salt in name only.

Yet to understand what it means to give ourselves for others, we must listen to Paul's reflection on his ministry to the Church in Corinth (I Cor 2:1-5). It's important that he remind his community, "When I came to you, I did not come proclaiming God's testimony with any particular eloquence or `wisdom.'"

One of my favorite Hollywood quotes is from the late Rita Hayworth. When asked why she was married and divorced so often, she replied, "My husbands all thought they were marrying `Gilda.' But when they woke up the next morning, they realized they'd married Rita." She believed they loved, courted and married a character she once played in a movie, not the person she really was.

Real me

Paul had no intention of making Rita Hayworth's mistake. "When I came among you," he writes, "It was in weakness and fear, and with much trepidation. My message and my preaching had none of the persuasive force of `wise' argumentation, but the convincing power of the Spirit." Paul gave the Corinthians no one but his real self.

Paul believes it's impossible for anyone to "proclaim God's testimony" without giving himself or herself. He writes: "I determined that while I was with you I would speak of nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified." The weakness of Jesus crucified is mirrored in the personal weakness of the individual proclaiming Jesus crucified.

Only because Paul had conveyed his own frailty when he evangelized the Corinthians can he now conclude this short passage with, "Your faith rests not on human wisdom, but on the power of God."

Followers of God will be recognized because they give themselves to others. They don't pretend to be someone they're not; they're not ashamed of who they are. In spite of all their weaknesses, they're people who have been gifted with God's strength. If their weakness wasn't recognized, neither would the power of God which shines through them be recognized.

(02-04-99)