Gospel for tomorrow. The image of salt puts us in mind of food. It reminds us that salt is necessary for life. It's also a natural anti-bacterial, a preservative. It brings out the flavors of the food while at the same time killing germs that might make it spoil. Fire also is something we use to cook, but much more. It does indeed purify, but it can also kill. It warms but can also burn. It's dangerous but intrinsic to the survival of man. Without fire we would still be living only in the tropical reasons eating only fruits from the trees. Fire improves life but anything it touches changes.
Both of these images remind us of something that changes us, cleanses us. Both can hurt but both are beneficial as well. Anyone who has ever gotten salt in a wound knows that it stings! Yet, it also helps to kill the germs. Spiritually both of these images indicate a cleansing, albeit maybe a painful one. A cleansing that every single person will go through, not just the good and not just the bad, but every one of us. The thing is, we have heard this image before throughout the history of Christian theology. "God's love is an all consuming fire." "We are the salt of the earth." The image of the burning bush comes to mind. It did not consume the bush, but it transformed it. The ground on which it stood was then holy ground. So in God's case the fire doesn't consume everything... but it does change everything it touches.
St. Paul tells us the parable of man whose house was burnt to the ground, and he declares he was saved as by fire. The only thing that made it through were the gold, precious gems, and precious stones. All of the wood, hay, and stubble was destroyed in the process. I think that's the image that Mark wants us to envision in today's reading. Those things which are from heaven, those things born of charity (love), are what will remain after the house burns down. Those things which are not of heaven; selfishness, ego, hatred, anger, addiction, disordered attachments; these things would be consumed by the fire.
I have heard God's love described as an all consuming fire that is fueled by sin. Just like a log that you throw on the fire, the more sin, the more the flames burn. In light of our belief as Catholics that explains Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory like this: Those who refuse to let go of their sin cling to it in the life after this. They have no desire to let go of it and the more they are washed by the love of God, the more it burns, the more it hurts. So they run for eternity trying to get away from the love of God, hating him more and more... instead of just letting the sin go. Those who die with some attachment to sin but are on their way to heaven must be pure before entering. So they bear the burning... while trying to let go of the sin. Until the sin is burnt out, until there is no more fuel... they simply must endure it as they grow closer and closer to God's love. The greatest ache they experience is knowing they are on the way to see God.. but their own sins, the things they did not let go of in this world, that is what is keeping them from going directly to him. That is purgatory. Not a new place, not another chance.. but a process by which you are cleansed by God's burning love. Then those who are pure, those who have no attachment to sin, have no need for purification.. those we call Saints.. because they are right there in Heaven with God.
James in the first reading gives us a laundry list of sins. He condemns those with wealth who do not help those in need. Those who cheat the poor. He declares all the ills that we today know as Social Justice. This is the fuel. These are the things which make God's love flare and burn. It's only when we allow him to purify us, to cleanse us. To let the Holy Spirit transform our hearts and our minds until we no longer hold on to those sins.. and the sorrow, the remorse, the bitter conscience... is replaced with love, joy, faith, and hope. That's what the Sacraments are all about. Letting God's love wash over us. It may not always be pleasant, but it's cleansing. It may not be something we want to go through, but it's necessary.
Jesus uses some hyperbole to talk about the need to cut off those things which cause you to sin. The Church Fathers have long seen these parts of the body as symbols for intimate friends. Jesus is calling us to examine our friendships... that it's better for us to walk into Heaven without that person at our side.. than for us to follow them down a path that leads to both of our destruction. He declares that it is better to have a millstone tied around our necks than cause a child of God to sin... that goes for us.. and for them. I think that's the challenge today. To ask ourselves, in what ways am I being held back? What fuels am I holding on to? What do I need to let go that God's love might flood over me and purify me? Are there any poisonous, caustic relationships that I am in that I need to take a break from? Remember salt enhances flavor, it brings out the nuances of what is already there. It's time for us to remove those things which are unpleasant to the taste, and replace them with that which will last forever.
His servant and yours,
"He must increase, I must decrease."