I was thinking about how much salt and light I use as a matter of course, as I read this passage of scripture (Matt.5:13-20).
I thought about the variety of ways in which salt is used daily. Similarly, I thought about our need for light. We take both for granted. I need salt in my cooking and in many of the chores I carry out. I turn the lights on when it becomes too dark to see; I need light for driving; for close work as my eyes change with age; I am dependent on both to make life bearable. Imagine what life would be like without either.
In Jesus’ day, salt was widely used for preserving (there were no fridges); for seasoning food; fertilizing the soil, sacrifices at the temple, for covenanting, purifying, cleansing and for signifying loyalty.
This discussion about salt and light comes immediately after Jesus’ extraordinarily beautiful opening comments in the Sermon on the Mount, known as the Beatitudes, which we reflected on last week. These next verses in Matthew’s Gospel, in Ch. 5:13-20 and the teaching which continues to the end of chapter 7, comprise the full Sermon on the Mountain given by Jesus to his disciples and those who had gathered to hear and listen to his words.
You and I are among those gathered to hear what Jesus is saying. Today we sit alongside those who were there on the mountainside; we are leaning in to hear what Jesus was saying.
Now, through the metaphors of salt and light Jesus is trying to bring the meaning of the Beatitudes back into everyday language and give us examples that make sense in the lives of the disciples and similarly for you and I.
Jesus is also not saying the disciples are remarkably good or wise as individuals. Nor is he predicting they will become another Moses or Solomon and we remember Peter’s failings and our own, to know the reality of this. Jesus is also certainly not commenting on their modesty!
As disciples, we are to be blended in, like salt, among everyone else in our communities, offering and pointing to goodness, and we are also to be visible like light, displaying and pointing to truth.
Salt, like light, when they are added to something else creates something enhanced, new and different. It changes the character, flavour, quality of everything that surrounds it. If it doesn’t do that anymore, why use it? If this is what it does when it is used, why would you not use it? It is life changing for everything it touches.
Jesus also doesn’t say, ‘You will be salt; or you will be the light of the world’ at some future time or place. Jesus says: “You are the salt of the earth,” and “You are the light of the world.” Already, now, today. So, don’t waste time waiting for the future after God has transformed you; you are already transformed.
This life experience is real now! The kingdom of heaven is joined with you here, today and always. Not at some point in the future. You are living in it now if you choose this way.
This understanding of Jesus’ words means all of this is not specifically ‘about’ you, the good you will do or the truth you will bring through your own striving. Jesus tells all of us who are listening:
“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in Heaven”
Jesus reminds us uncomfortably: ‘The credit isn’t intended to be yours, if that is what you are seeking’.
Do not do good works in order to enhance your status. Rather, do them because that is exactly what you are made to do. Do them because ‘doing good works’ is one and same thing as ‘being who you really are’. Salt and light in themselves, do not have other ways of being. They are doing what is their purpose. We are to do likewise. We are to do good things not to gain status, but rather as an outworking of the status we already enjoy. For you and I are light in the world and the salt of the earth.
In our church today, we are not generally admired or trusted; we are only mentioned in the news when there is a fresh scandal; when we are shamed by some leader’s criminal behaviour, corruption and selfish living. Our voice is silenced except when extremists are held up as examples and caricatured. Our values and services are not seen as essential in people’s lives.
I don’t think the church today is considered indispensable like salt or light.
Our understanding of this reality now invites us to recognise it is not about being valuable according to the world’s standards; our worth is not measured by whether we have the largest budget, the most staff, or being measured by our wealth, popularity and status. We realise we are not required to have the most popular youth programme or most beautiful of churches as if we belonged to a larger franchise with a set way of doing God to be successful.
Like ordinary salt, or ordinary light, we are invited to be humble, compassionate, loving and forgiving, merciful and life-giving in the world. To the extent we can stay true to this calling, we give glory to God in this way of being. The point is not to give glory to ourselves. We do not measure ourselves and neither does God, on worldly success measures and standards. We give glory to God by living as we truly are in God’s eyes and as God desires for us; humbly being salt and light.
Isaiah reminds us what salt and light look like when their true natures are understood for us as disciples in God’s beloved creation (Isaiah 58:6-9a):
Is this not [the fast] [what] I choose….to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
This is what God intends for us as salt and light disciples.
Just as the light I turn on in the house when it is in darkness so I can prepare supper or read my bible, turning it out and sitting in darkness is absurd. Our ability to recognise the absurdity of us being salt and light and denying our true nature in Christ is what Jesus shows us in these reflections.
This acceptance of light and salt characteristics increases our understanding of the Beatitudes which we reflected on last week; they describe the disciples and ourselves as a people attuned to God’s actions and desires as the promise of hope for all. They are not orders demanding what humans ought to do.
God’s kingdom is not coercive; it is loving and inclusive. You and I have chosen to be salt and light. We have been free to discover it and choose this way of being recognising our true nature. The freedom to choose is a gift of hope from God.
If we then fail to be true to God’s purpose for us, what good are we in the world? If we bear the name of Christ as Christians but have lost our true essence, our understanding of our role as salt, then people do stop seeing us as useful for anything and Christ’s name is squandered and the church will remain a scandal, a hissing in the marketplace for all to mock and despise.
If we say we are followers of Christ as Christians but have hidden Christ’s light under power, wealth and transactional assessments of each other’s usefulness instead of relationships, under greed, corruption and selfish living rather than living simply as lights in God’s creation then we have robbed the world of God’s good gifts.
And both are unacceptable.
Jesus is asking us to live as God desires of us, being as salt and light. May God’s will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
The Lord be with you.