Today’s reading is part of a transition for Matthew — a transition between the “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it” of the Beatitudes and the “what are you going to do about it?” of what comes next. In order to be a helpful transition, the metaphors of salt and light must serve as commentary on both what was said before them and what is said after. In my previous post, the Beatitudes indicated God’s love for and blessings upon us — even when the divinely desired response to that love is challenging for us, and especially when our response breeds hostility and persecution by the world. Today, Jesus goes on to point out to us that we are salt and light.
It would be wise for us to have in mind the context in which Matthew wrote his gospel. Matthew is most closely associated with the ancient church in Antioch, a congregation made up mostly, though not exclusively, of Jewish Christians. This is why Matthew wrote Jesus’ story in a way that would appeal to a Jewish audience: Jesus is depicted as the “new Moses,” his family having fled from the wrath of an angry king who kills young babies; having then made the return trip from Egypt to the Promised Land; and now, as his ministry is about to begin in earnest, having climbed a mountain to give to the people of Israel his interpretation of the Law of God — just like Moses.
It’s important to remember, too, that Israel is an occupied territory. While they live in their native land, in a sense Israel is still a nation in exile, because they are not self-governing. The Jews reacted to this situation of exile-in-their-own-territory in a variety of ways. The Saduccees collaborated with their captors in an effort to gain favor and power. The Zealots stoked the fires of a widespread desire to take up arms and fight the empire off. The Pharisees, as a party, were of two minds. Some of them agreed with the Zealots that Rome should be shoved out of the Promised Land. Others decided that if they could not attain political independence, at least they could preserve their cultural and religious identities as a people called and set apart by God.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount preaches ta similar message, but it does so through a different perspective on the law of Moses. As we will learn, Jesus rejected the ideology of the Zealots, teaching his listeners that their enemies should not be hated, but loved; should not be resisted, but prayed for and met with astonishing generosity. But he also rejected the ideology of the Pharisees, pointing out that unless one’s righteousness exceeded that of the scribes and Pharisees, one would not enter the kingdom of heaven. In other words, the medicine the Pharisees were selling wasn’t strong enough to cure what was ailing Israel (or, as we read it, the church).
The Greek words used in Jesus’ pronouncements this morning are extra emphatic, second-person, and plural — Yinz are the salt of the earth; Yinz are the light of the world (if you are from Southwestern Pennsylvania); youse are the salt of the earth; youse are the light of the world (if you’re from Philadelphia and parts of the Tidewater); Y’all are the salt of the earth; y’all are the light of the world (if you’re from the South of the United States)! And the reason for the emphasis is that Jesus is going to spend much of the Sermon on the Mount contrasting the church with the Pharisees and Zealots, and he’s prepared to start right now. The Zealots have the wrong idea, the Pharisees have the wrong idea—Yinz (because I’m from the Pittsburgh area) are the salt; Yinz are the light, not them.
The Pharisees’ version of adherence to the law was based on an outdated understanding of Israel’s situation. The Pharisees worked on the assumption that the fulfillment of God’s promises still lay in the future; that God’s reign had not yet begun; that the mentality of exile still continued. And so they advocated withdrawal and protection of their cultural identity so that they might be found righteous when God “did his new thing.” But Jesus was proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven was now; that God was already doing a new thing. So merely preserving one’s cultural identity was no longer good enough.
This is what Jesus meant when he said, “No one puts a lamp under a bushel basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house” (Matt. 5:15). If we know who we are — if we recognize that God has called us, separated us, and marked us as his own children — and then refuse to do something about it, then we are salt without flavor; we are lamps under a bushel. We are useless to the kingdom, and will be thrown out with the trash.
We are not salt and light by virtue of any inherent potential that we’re called to recognize and develop. We don’t choose to be salt and light, and we aren’t salt and light simply because of who we are. We are salt and light because Jesus says so. What, then, must we do to fulfill our calling, or our purpose, as the salt of the earth, or the light of the world? In one sense, Jesus will spend the rest of the Sermon on the Mount answering that question. By mentioning it near the beginning, Matthew hopes that it will help us to make sense of everything else that Jesus is about to say. Jesus calling his followers the salt of the earth suggests that Jesus gives us a distinctive capacity to elicit goodness on the earth. Like salt, which is used to alter or enhance the flavor of food, we have the capacity elicit goodness — to alter or enhance the world in which we live — as we participate in Christ’ ministry in consequential ways. In other words, our being in the world should change the flavor of the world, making it more palatable.
Salt is used to indicate a number of things in the historical context of Matthew. It is a symbol in the Old Testament for sacrifice, for covenant fidelity, for purification, seasoning, and preservation. “But if salt has lost its taste [not by some impossible chemical miracle, but through the impurity of mixing in other minerals]… it’s no longer good for anything, and must be thrown out.” Salt that is full of impurities cannot be used to season, purify, or preserve, because it will taint anything to which it is added.
Jesus, calling his followers the light of the world, indicates that we are illumination for the world. It almost seems like being called to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven,” is in direct contradiction to Jesus’ teaching later in the Sermon on the Mount, in chapter 6, that we should “beware practicing our piety before others in order to be seen by them.” I’ll have more to say about that when we get there. For now, I’ll simply say that it’s only a contradiction if we misunderstand the nature of light. Light is not seen — it allows other objects to be seen by illuminating them. In other words, the good works we do to give glory to our Father in heaven does not make us stand out, they make God stand out. It doesn’t draw attention to us, it draws attention to God. God is glorified — God’s will for the world is illuminated for others to see — by the light of the world, which is not seen.
The light metaphor is an even stronger comparison between the church and the Pharisees than the salt comment was. After all, the prophet Isaiah says of Israel, “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isa. 42:6). This is how God described his covenant with Israel: God was using Israel to bring the light of righteousness to all nations, open the eyes of the blind, and release prisoners who sit in darkness. But here in Matthew, Jesus says, “Not the Zealots, not the Pharisees — Yinz are the light of the world. My followers, those who see the Kingdom breaking forth before them, and live righteously so as to glorify God.”
As Christianity is about relationship — first our relationship with God in, through, and as Jesus Christ, and then our relationships with our fellow human beings — relationships require doing, and in this case, doing in a distinctively Christian way. Living like this was not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Jesus’ rejection of the Pharisees’ teaching was not a rejection of the Torah — it’s just that he wanted his listeners to practice Torah with a different perspective. The Pharisees read the Torah from the perspective of a world enslaved to sin, and believed that the Torah protected Israel against losing its identity as God’s chosen people. Jesus read the Torah no longer in the context of sin, but in the context of the Kingdom of Heaven, because he knew that in him, the Kingdom of Heaven had already come. And that Kingdom of Heaven has an additional dimension to it: that of the Christian community. We are not merely a bunch of Christians that individually figure out how to be salt and light.
For instance, if I drop one single grain of salt into a glass of water, would anyone be able to tell the difference if they drank the water? On the other hand, if I were to dump an entire saltshaker into the glass, would anyone be able to tell then? Of course! Because more grains of salt make more of a combined effect than one grain can do on its own.
Now consider a flickering candle. In a large, pitch black sanctuary, where a single candle was the only light in the room, would you be able to see well enough to, say, read your Bible? No.But if we placed a hundred such candles, even though each only provides a little light on its own, together they would provide more than enough light to read by.
That’s what makes Jesus’ use of “yinz” so significant. It’s a plural pronoun, not a singular one. What Jesus is saying is, “Living according to the Way takes all yinz.” We can accomplish much more to glorify God, much more to enhance the flavor of the world, much more to dispel the world’s darkness together than we can separately. Remember, Jesus didn’t say, “A man standing on a hill cannot be hid,” but “a city built on a hill cannot be hid.” There’s no denying who we are — that is, whose we are. At least, not unless we want to be taken out with the trash, and trampled underfoot.
Let me close by quoting, again, from Eugene Peterson, who paraphrases this part of the Sermon on the Mount in this way:
“Let me tell you why you are. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste Godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.
“Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, their generous Father in heaven.
“Don’t suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures—either God’s Law or the Prophets. I’m not here to demolish but to complete. I am going to put it all together, pull it all together in a vast panorama. God’s Law is more real and lasting than the stars in the sky and the ground at your feet. Long after stars burn out and earth wears out, God’s Law will be alive and working.
“Trivialize even the smallest item in God’s Law and you will only have trivialized yourself. But take it seriously, show the way for others, and you will find honor in the kingdom. Unless you do far better than the Pharisees in the matters of right living, you won’t know the first thing about entering the kingdom.”
How do we live more righteously than the Pharisees? Well, Jesus is going to explain that over the next few posts. But for now, he has already started by suggesting that we not keep the gospel to ourselves, because it wasn’t meant for us alone. We are the instruments through which God is bringing the Gospel to the whole world. If we keep it to ourselves, then we’re not doing what we were called to do — and in fact, we’re useless to God. Besides, the Christian faith is not intended to be lived in solitude, but in community. And if we pull together, then living our faith out loud, like a city on a hill, or a light on a lampstand, will bring out the God-flavors and illuminate the God-colors in the world, and in this, God is glorified.