The holy gospel according to Matthew. Glory to you, O Lord.
[Jesus said:] “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)
Last week, one thing I forgot to mention about the “Sermon on the Mount” is that it is an artificial construct? Jesus didn’t know they would call the first section “The Beatitudes,” he was just teaching the disciples the way they should be in the world. The Beatitudes start off really impersonal…“Blessed are those…” But verse 11 & 12 get more personal, “Blessed are YOU when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” And “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Then chapter 5 continues, “YOU are the salt of the earth…YOU are the light of the world.” We each sit at the feet of Jesus and he personally calls us to be salt and light to all the world.
Could you imagine a world without salt or light? Salt and light are such integral parts of our lives that it is impossible for me to imagine what the world would be like without them. Light is necessary for all life as it gives us warmth, the ability to see, and even life itself. While maybe not so critical for life as we know it, and I’m a pepper guy, we all know how important salt is to bring out the flavor of food. However, in the ancient world salt was also important in preserving foods and healing wounds.
So when Jesus says to his followers that we are the salt of the earth and light for the world, he is saying that we are not optional extras that exist on the outer fringe of society. Jesus is saying that we are critically important for the world to have sight, warmth, the flavor of God’s goodness and grace, preserving it against evil, bringing healing, and even being necessary for life itself.
Having just told them through the Beatitudes that they belong in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus now tells them how they function in that kingdom as salt and light—if they live true. The privileges and responsibilities of kingdom living found in the Beatitudes are being talked about here. The Beatitudes are some of the “good works” Jesus values in verse 16. In what will be next week’s lectionary text, Jesus immediately provides more examples of good works that might lead others to give glory to the Father.
But for now, we’re focusing on the message found in the images Jesus uses with salt and light.
When Jesus talks about salt losing its taste, he uses a verb that—when not talking about salt—means “to make or show to be foolish.” Think Romans 1.22: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools…” exchanging the true God for idols. We are meant to understand that losing our saltiness is a matter of becoming foolish towards God, for it is God who tramples what does not belong at the final judgement.
When it comes to being like light, Jesus speaks the obvious. A city built on a hill can’t hide. The lighthouse’s purpose is to be a beacon that catches attention and communicates a message. When you try to cover a lamp you’ve just lit, you are trying to put it out—on the whole, a rather foolish, contradictory set of activities!
Like salt is to taste, light is to sight, and Jesus formulates an even stronger object lesson with light. Salt that isn’t actually salt will be thrown out because it’s useless, but a light can be of great benefit to others to the point that they worship the God behind your good works.
Verse 17 marks a shift in the sermon, as though Jesus wants to meet some objections head on. In essence, he shows himself to be the salt and light in flesh. He promises that he has come to “fulfill” the law and the prophets, in essence all of the Old Testament, not replace it. He isn’t trying to put a “bushel” on God’s ordinances for the Jewish people, nor is he some counterfeit. No, Jesus Christ is the fullness of righteousness, the fullness of good works that lead to the glorification of the Father in heaven. Jesus’s time on earth models to us the salt and light of God’s plans and intentions. In him we see the brightness and taste the flavorful preservation of “the image of the invisible God” who reconciles all things.
In the way that Jesus lived, taught, healed, preached, abided with God and God’s people, we see the light that shines for the goodness of others; we taste our own preservation through his works.
Jesus says that we will not enter the kingdom of heaven unless our righteousness is greater than the scribes and the Pharisees. When taken in isolation, we might foolishly think that Jesus is preaching a works righteousness. But what he is actually doing is completing the imagery of salt and light: unless we be what we are, people in his kingdom, then we are not actually people of his kingdom. It is a bit of a circular explanation: we can only be what we are, salt and light.
That’s big, y’all, because the first thing that comes out of Jesus’ mouth, this is directly from God in flesh, from Jesus, is this: you are priceless and have great purpose; there’s power in you like no other. Maybe you didn’t hear it that way, but in Jesus’ context, that’s exactly what salt and light represented. Their essence was to be these unique, rare, valuable things, that were incredibly useful. Jesus looks at us straight in the eye and says, “I have called YOU.” My yoke is easy and my burden light. If you follow in my ways, you will ALWAYS be enough. I want you to hear that from Jesus. As salt and light, YOU are no accident, but God-made, with God-purposes in mind.
The crowd didn’t know what to say. Why? Because in their world, they’d been drilled by how sinful and naturally evil they were. The scribes and Pharisees had taught that only the most devout who kept every rule could earn God’s favor, and these crowds near Galilee were not in that club. They didn’t make the cut. I think that’s why Jesus feels the need to say this whole second section here—to reassure the people that he isn’t rewriting the law or inventing a new religion, but that he is the ULTIMATE fulfillment and the scribes and Pharisees themselves aren’t truly holy enough, not in the right way, for this yoke. Remember Matthew is writing for a particularly Jewish audience and Jesus IS the fulfillment of all the prophets foretold.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t say “If you want to be salt and light, you’re going to need to DO this or DO that.” Instead, he tells us this is what we are, and our only job is to “BE.” Doesn’t it sound heavenly to simply be? Be with no pretense, with no façade, not worrying about public opinion or how it will look or will they understand. Simply resting in God’s love. Knowing who you are and Whose you are. That would be a relief to so many people.
The truth is that salt and light don’t DO a lot, in and of themselves. When we enjoy a great meal and want to compliment the chef, we don’t say, “You know, that was the best salt I ever tasted?” or “Do you think you can give your recipe for that salt?” No. Because the salt isn’t made to do the DOING of the meal, it’s meant to compliment the main course by being there in the mix, and as the old saying goes: you can always add more salt, but you can’t take it away. If someone visits your newly-renovated, newly-decorated home, how would you feel if they said, “Well, now, the thing I really love is your light. Where did you get that lovely light that’s shining through the windows?” You want to hear about the colors you painted or a particular piece of artwork or the accents or how you set the furniture…maybe the windows and fixtures but not the LIGHT itself. Because the light isn’t the focal point, it’s what allows us to experience the main attraction. In the same way, I think Jesus is letting us know that all we have to do is BE, and in fact if we think our job is to DO and DO and DO then we’re probably just trying to eclipse the real focus, which is God Almighty. If we can just rest on God’s grace alone, then we are BEING who God designed us to be, we’re merely helping enhance the world’s experience of God, and draw attention to God.
This week being Groundhog Day, all kinds of channels were showing a marathon of the movie Groundhog Day.
If you don’t know the concept of Groundhog Day that the weather man played by Bill Murray lives the day over and over, but I didn’t know how he got it to stop or why. The movie finally takes a turn when Bill Murray’s character lets go and just simply was, taking opportunities as they come, he didn’t have to DO anything to impress Andy McDowell’s character. He doesn’t need to showboat to get the girl. He’s not even trying. At the end of the movie, it just comes naturally. It flows naturally from him in a humble way.
I want following Jesus to be as natural to us as breathing. I want us to recognize how much Jesus invites us just to be, to live out of our God-given essence. He’s real with us. He lets us know we have a choice. To be the essence and nature of what God means for us or not. In other words, even though God’s grace saves us and redeems us into roses, we can still choose to look and smell and act more like a Stink-daisy. It’s really easy to do. So Jesus issues our greatest warning: don’t choose to lose your true taste. Don’t choose to dilute your true flavor. Don’t choose to cover your God-given light. Don’t do it. Just BE, through and in me.
The question is, will this be a yoke that we take up for ourselves? Will we call ourselves “Christians” only in title or label or name, or will we BE disciples who live out of the God-given, Christ-redeemed essence and character that follows the way of Jesus?