Cornelius a Lapide’s Commentary on Matthew 5:13-16

Mat 5:13  You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt lose its savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is good for nothing anymore but to be cast out, and to be trodden on by men.

You are the salt, &c. That is, you, 0 ye Apostles, who are sitting here next to Me, to whom I have spoken primarily the eight Beatitudes—you are, by My election and appointment (for I have chosen and appointed you unto this) the salt of the earth, i.e., ye ought to be, and by My grace ye shall be. Christ passes from the Beatitudes to salt, because He delivers His moral teaching after the manner of the ancients, by short, separate maxims, and because the connection here may be easily traced. You, 0 Apostles, whom I choose to be, after My example, humble, meek, &c., shall, in so being, be the salt of the world.

You ask why does Christ call His Apostles the salt of the earth rather than the gold, or silver, or precious stones? I answer, because salt is a thing universally necessary and useful. Salt is as it were the balsam of nature, which preserves and seasons almost all things with which it is mixed, and keeps them from corruption. Thus the Apostles were the salt, i.e., the balsam of the earth.

2. Salt denotes the office, power, and dignity of the Apostles. For salt is the symbol of wisdom. For as salt seasons food and makes it savoury, so does wisdom season the mind and make it wise. Thus in Latin a foolish man is called a man without salt (insulsus) or unsalted, according to the verse of Catullus— “Not one grain of salt in so big a body.”

The Apostles therefore were salt because they corrected the unsavoury morals of the world, and made them wise and savoury.

3. Salt, says Pliny (lib. 31, c. 10), contains two elements, of an igneous and watery nature—igneous because it is sharp, like fire, and if it be cast into fire it makes it flare up; and if salt be cast into water it is dissolved in it. The same Pliny adds (c. 9) that there is nothing more beneficial to the body than salt. The Apostles therefore were the salt of the earth, because by their igneous force they kindled it with the love of God, and by their aqueous flow of words and their wisdom they watered its dryness as with a spiritual dew, and made it fruitful, that it should bring forth the fruit of good works and all virtues.

4. Salt flavours insipid food, and by its pungency renders it pleasant and wholesome. Thus the Apostles have emended the insipid and foolish opinions, mistakes, and customs of men by their forcible language, and made them pleasing to God and the angels.

5. As salt penetrates flesh, and preserves it from corruption by drying up the humours by which flesh is corrupted, so have the Apostles taken away from the minds of men the corruption of fleshly concupiscences, and preserved them for the immortality of everlasting incorruption. So Cicero (lib. 2 de Nat. Deorum) says, “What hath a sow besides its flesh? Chrysippus says that a soul hath been given it for salt, lest it should corrupt.” Thus to men who, like sows, were wallowing in flesh and blood, God bath given the Apostles, as it were salt and a soul, which might spiritually animate them, lest they should putrefy.

6. Salt excites thirst. So the Apostles have excited a thirst for heavenly things. Hear S. Hilary. “The Apostles are the preachers of heavenly things and, as it were, sowers of eternity: they bring immortality to all upon whom their speech is sprinkled.” Or Euthymius: “Ye have been chosen by Me to cure all the putridity of the world: ye are the salt of the earth.”

7. Salt, by its pungency, bites and pricks, dries and burns. Listen to Pliny (lib. 31, c. 7): “The nature of salt is igneous, and yet an enemy to fire. Putting it to flight, it dries substances and binds them together. But salt has such power over dead and putrescent substances that by its means they will endure for ages.” Thus, too, the Apostles, by their sharp and fiery speech, and by their life, have bitten, pricked, dried up, and shaken off the vices of men. Hear S. Gregory (Hom. 17): “If we are salt we ought to season the minds of the faithful. As is among brute beasts a rock of salt, so ought to be a priest among the people, that whosoever is joined to a priest, he may be seasoned, as if from a rock of salt, with the seasoning of eternal life.” Let priests read that entire homily of S. Gregory’s, and they will find it a golden mirror for their life, that they may be the salt of the earth. Wisely saith S. Chrysostom, “Do you wish to know if the people of any place are righteous? Look what sort of a pastor they have. If you find him pious, just, sound, believe the people will be the same, for they are seasoned with the salt of his wisdom.”

But if the salt lose its savour, &c. If an apostle, if a bishop, if a priest—who ought, like salt, to season the morals of others—shall, through gluttony, uncleanness, fear, or flattery, lose the vigour of his spiritual salt, who shall restore it to him? No one. This may be seen in the case of some of the priests and pastors of the past age, who either led scandalous lives, or else were ignorant and negligent in instructing the people wandering in, or verging upon, heresy. Whence the ecclesiastical order came into sad contempt, whence the heresies of Luther, Calvin, and the rest sprung up, who, says Maldonatus, are like unto unsavoury bugs: when they are alive they bite, when dead they give out an offensive smell.

Trodden on by men, &c. “For it is not he who suffers persecution,” says S. Augustine, “who is trodden under foot of men, but he who is so foolish as to fear persecution. For only an inferior can be trodden down; but an inferior he cannot be whose heart is fixed in heaven, although his body may suffer many things upon earth.”

Although salt be of an igneous nature, yet it dissolves if it be mingled with water. A good religious priest too is dissolved and becomes effeminate, if he associate too much with women, even pious ones. Hear what the Elder, cited by John Moschus, says in his Spiritual Meadow, c. 217: “My little children, salt is of water; and if it approach water, forthwith it fails and is dissolved. A monk suffers the same from a woman; and if he approach a woman, he too is dissolved, and comes to such a pass that he is no more a monk.”

So too does a priest come to naught if he be too accommodating to people of the world. Let him remember that he ought to be salt, and preserve his vigour, gravity, and liberty in rebuking vices. Let him not be ashamed to profess openly that he is an ecclesiastic and a religious, that is, a worshipper of God, a spiritual person, a despiser of the world, a lover of heavenly things. “Let him enter with another man’s, let him go out with his own,” says our S. Ignatius. That is, in the beginning, let him accommodate himself to the disposition and speech of seculars, but afterwards let him dexterously bring them round to spiritual things, to change of character, to sanctity of life. Thus shall he be as the salt of the world.

Mat 5:14  You are the light of the world. A city seated on a mountain cannot be hid.

You are the light of the world. You are; again this means, you are by My election and commission what ye ought to be in actual truth. The light of the world, that ye may by the light of your doctrine and evangelical life illuminate the world obscured by the darkness of errors and sins. So S. Hilary.

S. Chrysostom (Hom. 10 in Epist. ad Timoth.) says, “For this purpose hath He chosen us, that we should be as lights, and act as leaven, that as angels we should be conversant with men on earth, that we should act as men with boys, as spiritual with those who are carnal.” The sun is in heaven, but from thence it disperses its rays upon the earth; so do thou be with thy mind in heaven, whilst thy body is on earth, that thou mayest by thy conversation, and the example of thy virtue, illuminate, warm, and kindle it; so shalt thou be a light and a sun to the world.

S. Chrysostom adds something to be pondered deeply: “Assuredly, there would be no heathen, if we Christians took care to be what we ought to be; if we obeyed God’s precepts, if we bore injuries without retaliation, if when cursed we blessed, if we rendered good for evil. For no man is so savage a wild beast, that he would not run forthwith to the worship of the true religion, if he saw all Christians acting as I have said. And that you may learn that it is so, consider how many one Paul drew to the knowledge of God. If we were all like him, how many worlds might we not be able to win?”

A city seated on a mountain, &c. Christ here compares His Apostles, 1. To salt. 2. To light. 3. To a city conspicuous on a mountain. The Church, that is to say, the prelates of the Church, are often compared in the Psalms to the same thing, as Psalm 46 and 42. and 86; also Isaiah 60, 65, and Ezekiel 40. As, therefore, a city upon a mountain cannot be bid, but strikes the eyes of all beholders, so do apostles, prelates, and priests come before the eyes of all men, that if they discharge their office rightly, and preach the gospel more by their lives than by their words, they will attract many to Christ, and have praise of all: but if they do otherwise, they will turn many away from the Saviour and be blamed by all.

Mat 5:15  Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but upon a candlestick, that it may shine to all that are in the house.

Neither do men light a candle, &c. A candle is not wont to be bid under a bushel, i.e., under a vessel, as the Syriac, the Hebrew, and S. Luke have it. But it is placed on high on a candlestick. So be ye, 0 ye Apostles! who are placed on a higher step of office and dignity, that ye may enlighten all by your preaching and sanctity.

Candle, Gr. λύχνον, i.e., lamp, torch, candle, anything which gives light; for torches and candles are properly placed upon stands, and in Italy, lamps upon lamp-stands. So also the Hebrew לפיר lappid, which we translate, lamp or lantern, signifies anything which gives a light of flame. Hence lamps and torches, as here and elsewhere in Scripture, signify holy, and especially Apostolic men, who illuminate others by the light of their doctrine and holiness, and who inflame them by the fire of their charity. Whence Christ says of John the Baptist, “He was a burning and shining lamp.” (Vulg.) So Enoch and Elias are called two olive-trees, and two candelabra. (Rev 11:4.)

Allegorically: SS. Hilary, Ambrose, and Bede say, that it is here meant that the light of the Gospel was not to be shut up within the narrow confines of Judæa, but to be placed upon the height of Rome, that it might illuminate all the subject nations.

Mat 5:16  So let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.

Let your light, &c. That they may see, &c. The particle that denotes that the Apostles of Christ and all their followers must be careful to shine both in word and example, not for themselves but for God, in order that they may draw men to God; and by considering this we may reconcile what is here said with Christ’s teaching in chap. vi. 1, 2, and 5. “Take heed that you do not your justice before men, to be seen by them.” The emphasis is upon these last words, that the Apostles should not do righteous works with any such end in view as being glorified and praised by men; but here Christ commends the doing of good works before men, so this only end be kept in view, that they may glorify God by them. Hear S. Gregory (3 p. Pastor. Admonit. 36): “Why then is it commanded that our work shall be so done as not to be seen, and yet that it shall be seen, but that what we do must be hidden, so that we ourselves be not praised, and yet must be made manifest that we may increase the glory of our Heavenly Father? For when the Lord forbids our doing our righteousness before men, He immediately adds, lest we should be seen of them; and when, on the other hand, he tells us that our good works should be seen of men, he forthwith subjoins, that they may glorify your Father who is in heaven. Whether, therefore, works should be seen, or not seen, He showed must be according to the end we have in view.”

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One Response to Cornelius a Lapide’s Commentary on Matthew 5:13-16

  1. Pingback: Commentaries for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Tear A | stjoeofoblog

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