The Fifth Week after Epiphany: Matthew 5:13-20
This week, the lectionary brings us into the Sermon on the Mount:
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
—Matthew 5:13-20, NIV
I have to admit that I have a hard time with this passage. For me, it’s wrapped up with the Evangelical culture war and with the narratives of (Christian) American exceptionalism that I was taught growing up. America was the City on a Hill, shining for all the world to see; in the era of the Moral Majority, being salt very often meant acquiring political power.
And then, of course, there’s the terrifying prospect of the salt losing its saltiness: what does that mean? how does it happen? As an anxiety-prone perfectionist, this felt like a threat from a God just waiting to be disappointed in me (a topic for another day …)
I’m pretty sure, though, that Jesus doesn’t mean to encourage either political power grabs or existential despair.
So what does it mean to be salt? To be light? And why follow this with a discussion of the law?
In his sermon this week, my rector made two helpful points that I’m going to steal. First, he pointed out that Jesus doesn’t tell us to become salt and light; he tells us that we already are salt and light. Yes, Jesus tells us to not lose our saltiness or hide our light. But for me, the emphasis shifts to how we use what we already have, instead of how we get or keep these characteristics.
Second, he titled his sermon “Different From and Good To.” Salt and light are different from other things — but they are meant to do good. Light, for example, is different from darkness, but it is good: it allows people to see where they are going or what they are doing. I very much appreciate this emphasis on how salt and light are good for the things around them.
So as followers of Jesus, we are salt and light, and we are meant to do good to our surroundings. (And although Jesus didn’t say this, shining strongly and unexpectedly is little better than hiding the light — as I was reminded a few nights ago when my bedroom light mysteriously turned itself on at 2 am, disrupting the rest of my night …)
After this exhortation, however, Jesus veers into what seems at first to be a completely new topic: how he is coming not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Clearly, there’s a lot going on in these verses: what is the “everything” that Jesus plans to accomplish? What does it mean to have a righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees, the very people who clung most strongly to their identity as the people of God?
But with these words, Jesus wants to remind his audience about the covenants God made with Abraham and Isaac, covenants promising that all nations would be blessed through their offspring. About the laws given to Moses that command the people of Israel to treat the immigrant and the traveller well. About the prophets who chastise Israel for its failures to be good to even those within its borders, let alone those beyond them.
God’s people have been meant to be salt and light since the beginning: they are meant to be good for the world around them. And the law and the prophets referenced by Jesus give us an idea of what being good for the world looks like. It looks like caring for the poor, the orphan and the widow. Like ensuring that justice is done. Like refusing to allow the wealthy to abuse and exploit the poor and powerless.
William Temple, an Anglican priest of the early twentieth century, is said to have claimed, “The Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.” Clearly, this is sometimes more and other times less true of the Church. But Temple has hit on something vital. The church, as a community and as individuals, should bring God’s goodness to the rest of the world.
What does it mean to be salt and light? It means to love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with God. It means to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned.
Light in an already bright room is pointless; salt in a container in the cupboard has done nothing good. But when we as God’s people are light and salt for those who need it, then the nations of the world are blessed through us.