Salt and Light
What kind of disciples are we? To whom do we belong?
These are just two of the questions which our passage from Matthew’s gospel seeks to address. Jesus puts these questions to the disciples by referring to ‘salt & light.’ These two common, ordinary elements are used to frame how we are to interact with the world.
Text: Matthew 5: 13-20
Salt & Light
What would you like to be when you grow up? It’s a question that we often ask our children? They provide answers like: a police officer, a fire fighter, a doctor, a lawyer, a paleontologist. The list goes on. As we all know, the answer to this question of what do you want to be when you grow up changes. As children actually grow up the answers they provided change, becoming more varied and sometimes vaguer. Sometimes it appears that they don’t actually want to grow up, never mind what they want to be.
Ask this same question of an adult and you may get other insightful answers. Some adults who are doing something now that they are grown, acknowledge that it isn’t what they wanted. Others admit coyly that they haven’t grown up yet.
What I find most interesting about this question of what would you like to be when you grow up, is that we always associate the answer with a profession. It is rare to have this question answered in a fashion where the response is: to be a good person or to be someone who makes a difference in the world.
Our passage from Matthew raises two fundamental questions: Who are we? What are we to do?
Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Note, Jesus does not say we will become salt or that we will become light by virtue of becoming a disciple. He tells us that each of us is salt, each of is light.
It is not about who or what we will become. It is about who we already are. There is no additional need to become anything else. There are no ranks to climb, you are a disciple, a follower of Christ. You are salt and light.
Now that you know what you are, the read question we need to address is what are we to do? I think our passage makes that abundantly clear. Salt has a purpose. It makes food tastier and is used to preserve food. We might otherwise say that salt makes and keeps things good.
A light which is hidden is useless. Why have a light if you are going to hide it? We are light and we are called to share the goodness of our light with others. One of the scary aspects of light is that in order for light to be seen, you need to go where the darkness is.
There is the very literal aspect of this. Lighting a candle outside in daylight does not do much good. At night, it is a different story. Annie Dillard writes, “You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary.”
Years ago I led a youth retreat. At the end of a night walk, where the youth were blindfolded and only had a rope to guide them, after removing the blindfold they were given a candle. The were not given any matches. Instead they were to go out in pairs and look for the light. One of the other leaders was out in the wilderness with a lit candle. The young people had to find him and light their own candles. As each pair found him the source of light, its brightness and intensity would increase.
If you want your light to be seen, you need to be willing to go into the dark. Sometimes that is being out at night and sometimes it means venturing into uncomfortable areas: Talking about difficult subjects, helping people who have fallen on hard times. We need to take our light to them, to allow our love to shine through.
We do this because it points people, not to our own goodness, but that through our good works they might see God.
Archbishop William Temple is often quoted as saying, “The church is the only organization on earth that exists for those who are not its members.” Yes, we are here for one another, but our primary calling is to serve everyone outside those doors. To love them, even if they won’t love us back, even if they don’t want to be loved.
In all of this Jesus is reframing the way the disciples were to understand the law. The discussion about salt and light is a reference to the law. It served as a criticism towards the temple culture which paid lip service to the law, but didn’t live it out. What good is the law if you just use it to justify your own actions. What good is the law if you aren’t helping others? You’ve lost your salt, you’ve hidden your light if this is the case.
Jesus tells the disciples that he isn’t here to teach something new. Instead he has come to fulfill the law and to remind people of the laws intended purpose. Which is to care for others and therefore point towards God’s care of us. We like to paint the Pharisees as bad guys. However, the words of Jesus demonstrate that this isn’t necessarily so. The problem with the Pharisees is that they enforced the letter of the law but did not always live them out faithfully. Or perhaps we might say that Jesus reframes the way we are to understand the law.
We view the Pharisees as bad guys because they were part of the temple establishment which ultimately led to the death of Jesus. However, what is clear is that Jesus holds them as the minimum standard for what the kingdom of heaven is about. Jesus reminds us that he came to fulfill the law, not abolish it. Jesus says, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
What does that look like? If we accept that we are already salt and light. Then how do we live it out. How do we bring our light to the world?
Preacher and writer Eugene Peterson was once asked 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 the kind of world we live in, the primary way that I can get people to be aware of God is to say, ‘Who are you going to have breakfast with tomorrow, and how are you going to treat that person?’”
Peterson suggests we need to stop thinking that being a Christian means always being part of only obvious religious contexts. We just need to pay attention to what the people around us are doing most every day and then help them do it in ways that glorify God. “In my last sermon, I guess I’d want to say, ‘Go home and be good to your spouse. Treat your children with respect. Do a good job at work.” We need to be salt in the real world, and that involves genuinely being with real people, listening to them well, and treating them as the little images of God they all are (reference).
We live in a society where it is easy to act out. Easy to only care about ourselves. Being salt and light in the world requires us to do things a little bit differently. On the surface they may not seem earth shattering, but they make all the difference in the world. Amen.