Karen Hollis | February 5, 2023
Salt & Light
Matthew 5:13-20 (NRSV) "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."
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be reflections of your word to us today, in Christ’s name we pray. Amen
Did you hear what Jesus said about who we are? In a sermon that scholars agree is reminiscent of Moses speaking at Mount Sinai, Jesus lays out this lengthy teaching. In the section we just heard, he says something important about our identity . . . we know we are children of God and beloved of God – we were reminded of that at Jesus’ baptism a few weeks ago. In this morning’s text, Jesus tells us we are salt of the earth and we are the light of the world.
Did you notice that these are not aspirational? He doesn’t tell us the pathway to becoming salt and light . . . he says we are salt and light. In a literal sense, he’s correct. We are in part made of salt and require a certain amount of it to live. We also have a spark in us – there is something that animates our bodies, that is special and unique to each of us.
Salt is a staple of most diets – it’s something we keep on the table and in the cupboard, it’s the simplest ingredient and yet cooking with it is practically an art form. You don’t want to use too much or too little and timing matters. Used well, it enhances and draws out the beauty of what is already there. In Jesus’ day, salt was essential, not only to sustain bodies, but it was a preservative for food. Religious covenants were often sealed with it. Salt was so valuable, it was at times used as currency.
Light is also an essential part of life. Each day we are reminded of its precious gift when the sun rises faithfully, warms the day, and fills the sky with colour – whether or not we can see it. The sun provides an essential element to the continuity of life on this planet . . . and the night sky offers a different kind of light, full of wonder and mystery. Light has this amazing ability to penetrate the smallest of cracks and affects us on the most basic level.
So what is Jesus trying to tell us about being salt and light? There are many layers to this passage – it’s one people have scratched their heads over for centuries. In one way it’s as if Jesus is being intentionally thin with his explanation. Wisdom teachers can be like that when inviting us to find the answers within.
On another level, the author we call Matthew is telling the story of Jesus through a particularly Jewish lens. Let’s unpack that idea for a minute with this example. There are many places in the gospels where the Pharisees in particular criticize Jesus for breaking Jewish Law . . . they call him out for not practicing Judaism properly when healing on the Sabbath, picking grain on the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a common theme for Jesus and the Pharisees. His response is consistently, no . . . actually you’ve turned your practice into something that no longer celebrates our relationship with God, and instead limits human flourishing. This same idea is included in this morning’s text when Jesus says, Do not think that I have come to abolish the law; I have to fulfill it. (Matthew 5) In other words he’s saying, I have come to live it and teach it in a way that is consistent with what our tradition teaches about God’s love.
Perhaps for Jesus the salt of the Jewish faith had lost its taste . . . and he was looking for it to be restored by changing the way their faith was practiced. Jesus’ words are also an invitation for us to think about what we do, how we live . . . do our actions enhance the life with which we are in contact? Do our actions bring a spark that can grow into something that lights the world around us?
I have a complicated relationship with this text – I love the words and the sentiment. I also came into the world with a lot of fear, mostly about what humans can do to one another at their worst. There isn’t anything in my past that explains my fear. I’ve worked through and healed a lot of it . . . and thank goodness, because otherwise I wouldn’t be here.
There is a part of me that still responds to preaching in front of a congregation or the idea of letting my light shine before others with, “well that sounds like a terrible idea. Don’t do that.” And yet here I am doing these things, even when I feel afraid.
How do Jesus’ words resonate with your life? How does your daily practice enhance the life with which you are in contact? In what ways does it bring a spark that can grow into something that lights the world around you? Is there a distinction between the way you practice life and the way you practice your faith?
I offer you these questions in a spirit of generosity and without expectation and invite you to ponder them this week. Perhaps you will think of them when you salt your food or turn on a light switch. And may our collective outpouring of salt and light be for the life of the world. Thanks be to God.
1. p. 164 Into the Mess and Other Jesus Stories by Debie Thomas
2. p. 167 Into the Mess and Other Jesus Stories by Debie Thomas