Matthew 5:13-20 (CEB)
You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lamp stand, and it shines on all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise God who is in heaven.
February 4-5, 2017
“A Dash of Salt and a Flicker of Light”
We stay in the Gospel of Matthew this week and will hear another section of what has come to be called the Sermon on the Mount delivered by Jesus. The words of this sermon sound like Jesus’ training manual for those seeking to be his disciples.
Last week, we heard the beginning portion of the Sermon on the Mount known as the Beatitudes. Today’s passage follows immediately after the Beatitudes and has Jesus saying that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
(Read Matthew 5:13-16)
Perhaps you have heard or used the phrases that go something like this: “She is salt of the earth;” or “he is a bright light in our lives.”
When we say that a person is salt of the earth we mean things like, their presence is subtle but essential. Through their words, and actions; flavor is added to life. They speak a kind word; they are comfortable to be around; they stay around long enough to help; and they have an open heart.
Or, when we say that a person is a light in our lives we mean things like, the atmosphere brightens when they walk into the room; they find hope and possibilities in dark moments; joy and gentleness are consistent within them; they pay attention to what is happening with people around them; and they have an open mind.
Or, if we think about the use and purpose of salt and light, we discover that in the ancient world, salt not only added flavor, it healed and purified; and preserved foods. It could also destroy. During times of war, enemy lands were often salted to make them barren and useless for growing crops.
Salt also had a significant place in Hebrew worship as it was included in grain offerings, in burnt offerings and in the burning of incense. The Hebrews also used salt to ratify covenants with God and one another and newborn babies were rubbed with salt in the belief that this promoted good health and protection.
In Roman times, salt was an important item of trade and even used for money. Roman soldiers received part of their salary in salt because it was such a precious commodity. It is said that ‘salt’ is the word from which our word ‘salary’ comes from.
In the modern world, we use salt to season our food, soften our water, and this time of year we rely upon and trust the usefulness of salt to thaw the ice on our driveways, sidewalks and roads.
So, when Jesus refers to his disciples as the ‘salt of the earth,’ he is urging us to imitate the usefulness of salt and to bring some ‘flavor’ to our relationships with each other.
When we think about light, we realize that the intended purpose of light is visibility, so placing a light under a basket squelches its reason for being. Yet, the light of a single candle can fill a darkened room.
It wasn’t long ago that we sat here in the sanctuary on Christmas Eve and held our lit candles or glowsticks in the darkness and heard the words from the Gospel of John that say, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Light becomes an even more powerful image in our faith as Jesus said, “I am the light of the world” and tells us that we are too.
When we are being the light of the world, we are called to shine in such a way that the power of darkness is overcome by the gift of light.
When I think about being the gift of light, I usually think about the power of a small light similar to that used by ushers at the theatre to help latecomers find their seats. Those that come into the theater after the lights have gone down and the curtain has gone up are welcomed in by the usher and guided to their seats with the light of a little flashlight. The ushers help them maneuver through the darkness and keep them from stumbling while together they look for their place.
That’s the kind of light Jesus tells us that we are…the kind of light that welcomes and guides; the kind of light that helps others maneuver through the darkness of such things as depression, violence, addiction, and hopelessness. It’s the light that helps others find their way without stumbling on life around them. It’s the light that is Jesus Christ and that Jesus says is us.
When we look at the placement of our Scripture passage in the Gospel of Matthew, it is important to note where this passage is located. Right after this passage, Jesus presents some difficult teachings about such things as murder, adultery, divorce, revenge, giving to the needy, and prayer. It can be an uncomfortable list.
And right before our passage are the Beatitudes of Jesus that we heard last week.
Sandwiched in between is this metaphor about being salt and light.
The understood meaning of Jesus’ words is that we are defined as being salt and light…it is who God has created and called us to be.
Our Gospel text implies two basic core values of life: 1) knowing who we are and 2) knowing why we exist.
Who we are is salt and light and why we exist is the same reason for Jesus’ existence…to make God’s love visible to all the world as we live as salt and light in the world.
Notice that Jesus does not say, “You should be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.” And Jesus does not say, “You may become the salt of the earth and the light of the world if you try hard.” No, Jesus flat out says, “You are the salt of the earth,” and “You are the light of the world.”
The words of our Scripture are bold in telling us the status of who we are and why we exist. Yet, we are often more private about our faith. Lots of us tend to shy away from talking much about our faith because we are sensitive to what others might think or that we might offend someone.
And some types of Christian-faith sharing does offend us when it is aggressive or extreme or exclusive.
The word ‘Evangelism,’ which means ‘good news,’ has become a hard word to use sometimes because it makes us think of those who push their faith and beliefs onto others and insist that the only way to think about and know God is the way they think about and know God.
But really, evangelism simply involves living as salt and light in our everyday lives and then having the willingness to listen to another’s story in the context of a relationship.
Yet, when we don’t get much closer than the attitude that my beliefs are mine and your beliefs are yours, then a silence prevails that prevents us from speaking a word of hope and support when people really need it.
For Jesus, the practice of faith was to fulfill the ways of God by being in relationship with God and others. For Jesus, the practice of faith was a public affair.
In Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Bible called The Message, he paraphrases part of this passage by saying, “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth…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…”
In these days of anxiety, fear and uncertainty in which we live, it can be hard to know what our public salt and light response should or could be. So, sometimes simple is best.
Eugene Peterson, who is also a Presbyterian pastor, was asked once what he would say if he were writing what he knew would be his very last sermon. Peterson replied, “I think I would want to talk about things that are immediate and ordinary…In my last sermon, I guess I’d want to say, ‘Go home and be good to your spouse. Treat your children with respect, and do a good job at work.'”
Peterson is right. We need to be people of salt and light in our own ordinary, everyday lives.
Other times, our best teachers are children. The UMC has a new public service announcement out that offers a perspective from children of what being salt and light living might look like. I invite you to watch this short video (children’s video).
You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world.
So, if we don’t like the identity of Christianity that some folks present, then we are even more obligated to share with others the God we know through Christ…who welcomes all, who offers forgiveness from the past and hope for the future, and who calls us to serve others in the darkness in caring ways. We need to constantly ask ourselves how we are salt and light and how we are a demonstration of the Gospel to others, both in our words and in our actions.
There is that old saying that we may be the only Bible someone else will ever read.
We know that all it takes to add flavor to food is a dash of salt and all it takes to illumine a darkened room is a flicker of light. In so many ways, we are and can be the dash of salt and the flicker of light that is God’s love and grace in the words we speak and write and post to others and in the actions that we take on behalf of the Gospel.
It can be easy to give into the darkness…very easy. That is why we need to hold to the promise of Jesus that darkness, evil, pain, sorrow, and even death, does not have the last word.
Christ has the last word. And that word is resurrection and hope and new life.
When we are being the salt of the earth and the light of the world, we are Offering Christ.
How are we doing that? And how will you do that this week?
May it be so for each of us.
Thanks be to God.