SCRIPTURE – Matthew 5:13-20
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Pass the Salt and Turn On the Light
February 6, 2011
Is the world a ruder place these days? Have you noticed that? When we lived in Chicago I thought maybe it was just a consequence of the that many people in one geographical area, but I’ve noticed it even here in the friendly town of Lexington. It must be the case all over the country, because the evidence backs it up. A recent telephone poll by the research group Public Agenda found that people believe rudeness is getting worse in America. Seventy-nine percent of the people surveyed said that a lack of respect and courtesy is a serious problem today. The pollers said the other 21 percent hung up on them before they could even ask the question.
Some of this increased rudeness is intentional. You can see it in the way people treat hotel maids or waitresses. Some of it is even perpetrated by Christians. Friday I was driving on New Circle Road and I saw a car with a bumper sticker that said, “Honk if you love Jesus.” I was able to read it so well because the person driving had just cut in front of me without using their blinker. I bet they think I really, really love Jesus.
But some of our rudeness is unintentional. We don’t mean to be rude, but our focus is in other places. As I was going into the drugstore this week, I held the door open for a lady who was chatting away on her cell phone. She didn’t make eye contact or acknowledge my act of chivalry. No big deal. But I watched as she made her way into the store, went up and down several aisles, picked up a few items, took them to the counter, paid for them, got her change and left the store – all while still talking on her cell phone. Was she intentionally disregarding the human beings around her? No, I don’t think so. Was her behavior rude? You bet.
I think this distasteful human behavior is exactly what Jesus was getting at when he told the crowd listening to him that they were salt and light. These passages come near the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. Jesus has just given the Beatitudes, a series of blessings for the world’s underdogs, and he’s about to launch into a reinterpretation the laws of Moses for this new era. But in between, he wants to remind the people listening that they have been put here on earth for a specific purpose, and he uses two very interesting metaphors to do it.
First, Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth.” In modern times, that phrase has come to mean someone who is decent, dependable, unpretentious, and uses their turn signal. While that’s an admirable way to be known, that’s not what Jesus meant. In Jesus’ time, salt had several important uses, and by calling his followers “salt” Jesus was drawing on the meaning of those utilitarian functions.
First, salt was a purifier. We soak wounds in salt water because, while it burns, it also cleans and refines. The presence of salt has cleansing, purifying power. As salt, we are called to be the same. As one writer said, we are called to have an antiseptic influence on those around us. Something that is antiseptic is free of destructive or disease-causing bacteria. It is not infected by things around it. And it can purify whatever comes into contact with it.
I remember when I was first invited to join the Facebook internet community. The invitation came from a college student at my former church. I joined and checked out his Facebook page, which included several pictures of this 19-year-old drinking at a college party. So I sent him a message saying, “You do realize your pastor is seeing these pictures, don’t you?” I wonder how many people think twice about what they post on Facebook knowing a pastor or church member might be looking?
That’s what Jesus means by being a purifying presence. In a world of horn-honking and cell-phone-induced apathy, we are called to be different. We are called to be the ones who give people a glimpse of God’s kingdom, a kingdom where everyone matters and are treated as such. We are called to talk about others when they are not around as we would hope they would talk about us when we’re not around. As one author said, “We should make it easy for people to be good when we’re around.”
Salt was also used as a preservative. When stored with food, it would prevent bacteria from causing the food to decay. Because there was no such thing as freezers or shrink wrap, salt was crucial to helping provide food for people over a long period of time. Similarly, we pledge our faith to a story that is 2000 years old. Not many things that are 2000 years old are still relevant today. And even this story could die off if we let it. So we are called to preserve it, not only by telling it each Sunday, but by living it each Monday. We are salt when our faith is active, alive, relevant, informing everything we do or say, preserving the gospel in our lives.
The last use of salt that Jesus draws upon here is salt as a flavor additive. Salt, when added to a food, draws out its natural flavors and enhances the dining experience. By calling us salt, Jesus is saying that our job is to enhance the living experience by drawing out the divine in the world around us, or as one writer said, “We are to serve as kingdom seasoning.”
One important thing to note about salt as a seasoning: it doesn’t draw attention to itself. Have you ever been to a meal and heard someone say, “Wow, that’s some good salt! What brand of salt is this? I’ve never tasted something so…salty! We’ve got to get this recipe! This stuff is amazing!” If salt is doing its job, no one notices it, but instead notices the flavors it evokes. If we are doing our job, we are not drawing attention to ourselves, but to the love and mercy of God in us. As the salt of the earth, we are to purify, to preserve and to provide flavor.
Jesus then goes on to call us the light of the world. This is significant because in John 8, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” He is passing the torch of that title to his followers, calling them to radiate God’s love as he has done. He says since we have this light within us, the last thing we want to do is hide it. In Jewish households of the time, a candle would be the only source of light, yet it could easily light up the one-room structures in which they lived. The last thing you would want to do is hide it.
That highlights one of the dichotomies of this metaphor. First, the primary duty of a light is to be seen. If a light is shining, you can’t help but notice it. The only way to keep it from being seen is to hide it or extinguish it. Therefore, if we are to live the light that is within us, it should shine everywhere and in everything we do: in the way we treat the clerk at the counter, in the way we order our meal, in the way we drive our cars, in the language we use. We should not only be Christian in the church, but also in the store, the schoolroom, the kitchen and even – gasp! – on the golf course and in Rupp arena. This Christian stuff is not always easy, is it?
And yet, even as we are called to let our lights shine so that others may see it, the end goal is not to draw people to us, because it’s not our light. No one kindles their own light. This light we bear is not ours; instead, it is a reflection of Jesus, just as the moon reflects the sun’s light. We are not the source of the light, we are the windows through which the light is seen. Just as salt doesn’t draw attention to itself, so the light inside of us isn’t meant to be used as a spotlight shining on ourselves, but as a flashlight guiding the path to Jesus. “Let your light shine before others, so that they might see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, Jesus says. That’s kind of funny, because those people were probably no more salt and light than Peter was a rock or than we are saints. But Jesus doesn’t say, “Try harder to be salt and light.” He doesn’t say, “You are like salt” or “You can become a light.” He states, very plainly, “You ARE the salt of the earth. You ARE the light of the world.” He names in us what he knows is already there, just waiting to be discovered and put to use.
Notice also that Jesus didn’t say, “You are the salt of the church” or “You are the light of the congregation.” The nouns he uses – “earth” and “world” – imply that our mission field extends as far as the east is from the west. There is no place we go, no place too remote or routine or secular, where we are not called to be salt and light.
Sure, there will be times when we don’t live up to this calling. There will be times when we’re feeling particularly unsalty or lightless. We may excuse our behavior by saying, “I was having a bad day when I said that. It was just a little thing.” But little things add up, don’t they? They add up to who we are. And if we strive to be salt and light in the little things, then we are prepared to be salt and light in the big things.
The point is that it doesn’t matter whether we believe or now faithful we are. You are salt and light. Whether you’re a life-long Christian, a seeker, an agnostic, a fence-sitter, a new believer…doesn’t matter. You are salt and light. The decision isn’t whether or not you want to be. The decision is what you’re going to do about it.
The next time you have a chance to help someone, will you be salt and light? The next time someone starts to tell an offensive story, will you be salt and light? The next time someone wrongs you and asks forgiveness, or even doesn’t ask for it, will you be salt and light? The next opportunity you have to bring out the Kingdom seasoning and reflect the love of Christ, will you be salt and light? You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Thanks be to God.