BIBLE READING: Matthew 5:13–20
Penn Jillette is one of those celebrities whose name may not immediately register without hearing his stage partner's name - Raymond Teller. Together, they make up the comedy and magician team of Penn and Teller. They’ve performed their act all around the world, as well as on a bunch of late night talk shows, doing their illusions, peppered with Penn’s outspoken monologues next to Teller’s silence. Together they’ve become a modern Laurel and Hardy.
But Penn has been able to create a solo career as well. He has his own voice-over work for television shows, he produces movies, and he has his own stand up monologues that (for lack of a better word, might be called humour – though they are often political and philosophical reflections. He can be very outrageous, and is a professed atheist, who has said blasphemous things that have offend nearly everyone at some time or other.
He’s a very intelligent man who is rarely at a loss for words - and can easily demolish someone’s cherished beliefs in a verbal confrontation or debate. But a while ago he said something very interesting. He had done his show one evening and after the show, he went outside to meet some fans and sign some autographs. While he was meeting people he noticed one man standing off to the side; he could tell that this guy was hovering, and obviously wanted to talk to him.
It turns out that the night before, the man had seen Penn’s show. Penn was convinced that the guy was a real fan of the show - he had participated as a volunteer in the act, and was complimentary about how much he enjoyed the performance. He came back this next evening to give Penn a Bible. This fan spoke to Penn face to face, looked him in the eye, was honest, humble and sincere, as he told Penn that he was a business man, who also shares his faith, spreading the Gospel whenever he can. In the Bible he had put an inscription with his name and phone numbers in it. Penn was truly affected by this encounter. He calls this experience "wonderful." In his reflection on the incident, he’s often at a loss, or struggling for words. He repeatedly describes this man as "kind, nice and sane [as he] talked to [him] and gave [him] this Bible..."
Here’s where what Penn said is very confronting. He said, " I don’t respect people who don’t [share their faith] . . . How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible, and not tell them that . . . this guy was a really good guy. He cared enough about me to (share his faith]." Then Penn concluded, "I know there is no God. And one polite person living his life right doesn’t change that. But he was a very, very good man."
In his head, Penn still 'believes' in his brand of atheism - but it sounds like his heart was moved to wonder - it sounds like this encounter with a man who purely, simply, loved him enough to share the "good news of great joy for all people" helped shift his perspective a bit; and that maybe, just maybe, one day this avowed atheist might truly believe.
Isn’t what this one fan did embody what Jesus is telling us to do in today’s Gospel?
YOU are the salt of the earth!
YOU are the light of the world!
One of the main problems that we as Christians face is meekness. Being politeness. Being cautious. Being “respectfully” reserved. But when we look at Jesus on the cross – remembering what he was willing to do to save us from our sin – any excuse we can come up with for why we resist, why we hold back, why we don’t share our faith – why we don’t share good news with a world desperately looking for any – rings very hollow. Jesus doesn’t hold anything back – his greatest example to us is forever made visible, made real in his sacrifice of the Cross.
Which is why this Gospel is so short, but powerful. You - and I – We are the salt of the Earth, You and I – We are the Light of the World. We have to empty ourselves just as Jesus did – letting go of our fears and inhibitions, overcoming our shortcomings and failures, believing and trusting that the darkness is banished when you and I flavour and enlighten the world with Christ.
Acknowledgement: Fr Jim Chern