Salt and Light: A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

February 6, 2011

Let me repeat the last words of today’s gospel, in case your mind was wandering as they were being read: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” There are some very hard statements in the gospels, things Jesus says that seem, if taken for face value, to offend us, challenge us, perhaps make us rethink everything we do. This is one of those statements. Spoken directly to the disciples, Jesus seems to be telling them that the Pharisees, who seek to keep the law as faithfully as possible, are exemplars of moral behavior for the disciples, that indeed, the disciples must do better than the Pharisees, or risk damnation.

When confronted by such texts, we are inclined to respond in one of several ways. We might discount it, giving reasons why it can’t mean what it seems to mean, that it can’t apply to us or our efforts. We might also take it as a challenge, seek to be more righteous than the Pharisees, to live as Jesus taught his disciples to live. A third alternative would be to worry that because we can’t be as good as that, it must mean we will one day burn in Hell. These are the sorts of questions that the Gospel of Matthew confronts us with, and will continue to confront us with, for the coming months. And in these weeks, we are in the heart of that challenge. At the same time, we all also need to confront our own emotional, intellectual, and spiritual responses to Jesus’ challenge.

Beginning with last Sunday’s gospel, and continuing for the next few weeks, we will be spending time with the Sermon on the Mount. It includes many of Jesus’ most familiar sayings, and also some of his most challenging ones. We have both in today’s gospel—the familiar: “You are the salt of the earth…” and “You are the light of the world.” And the most challenging: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Those words of Jesus may challenge us—blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you… Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees… Those are hard words, made more confusing and difficult because of the way we think about “scribes and Pharisees.” To understand this, we have to be clear about how Matthew understands the relationship between Jesus and Judaism. We tend to think of the two as being opposed, that Jesus was critical of law, the Torah. In fact, as today’s gospel makes clear, Jesus was not opposed to the law. He said that he came to fulfill it. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reinterprets the law, making a series of pronouncements in the form, “You have heard it said of old, … but I say to you. The debate between Jesus and the Pharisees was not about the value of the law, but of its interpretation. Here, Jesus praises the Pharisees, but says, their approach isn’t sufficient.

Jesus is speaking to his disciples, to people he called as he walked by the sea of Galilee and saw them working in their boats. He promised to make them “fishers of people.” He is speaking to them now, telling them what he meant by that. And as people listening in on a conversation that took place nearly two thousand years ago, Jesus is also speaking to us. But if he is speaking to us, his words are jarring in that they describe a world very different from ours, a world in which Jesus’ disciples might expect persecution—something none of us do, here in Madison, in 2011, no matter how much conservative Christians make claims to the contrary.

We might want to pass over that promise of persecution, as our gospel today did. Instead, our attention is drawn to the two statements that begin today’s gospel reading. We wonder what Jesus means by them, what their significance might be for his disciples. Are they commands? Are we somehow supposed to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world? If so, what would that look like?

Salt and light. I’ve been mulling over those metaphors all week, trying to think of something new and interesting to say about them, struggling to understand what Jesus might have been getting at. For all of their familiarity, the images, and Jesus’ sayings that make use of them, aren’t particularly clear at all. We can see that lack of clarity in the very way “salt of the earth” has been reinterpreted in our culture. I’ve heard it used a good bit over the years and it always seems by the speaker to mean, something like “he’s a really good guy, down to earth, dependable,” a “mensch” to use another term, a stand-up guy. And it’s pretty much always a guy who is being referenced in that usage.

Are they statements of fact, descriptions of Jesus’ disciples? They are declarative statements. Jesus says “you are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world.” Not, “you should be.” Our impulse when asking these questions is to focus on what salt and light are. But perhaps to understand these metaphors, what Jesus meant by them, and also, what the gospel writer meant, we have to look at the larger context.

The lectionary makes the same break that most bibles do. In fact, if you look at a NRSV  for chapter 5 of Matthew, it’s likely that in addition to a paragraph break between v. 12, which ended the gospel reading last week, and verse 13, which begins this week’s reading, there is some sort of heading “Salt and Light” for example, that suggests a shift in theme. It’s important to remember that there was another shift that took place in last week’s reading. Matthew’s version of the beatitudes has Jesus speaking in the third person: Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, and the like. In v. 11, Jesus speaks directly to the disciples, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you.” He continues speaking to the disciples directly as he calls them salt and light. So the disciples, and by extension, all of us, who have been baptized into Jesus Christ, are salt and light.

By their very natures, salt and light do things. They transform the things they touch. Salt preserves, salt makes food flavorful, salt melts ice and snow. Light shines in the darkness, it makes the night livable for us, a time when we can be productive or sociable. So, if we, Jesus’ disciples, are to be salt and light to the world, what might that mean?

The obvious answer is that we are to be transformative in the same way that salt and light are. We are gathered here for all sorts of reasons, to learn, to worship, in search of the sacred or meaning, for healing, or hope, out of duty, necessity, or curiosity. We come to this place, to this table bringing all sorts of questions and burdens, seeking solace and help.

We come, and even as we grasp and yearn for solace and healing, Jesus challenges us to take what we receive here and offer it to others. Jesus challenges us to be salt and light. The reading from Isaiah puts it just right. In a passage that begins with criticism of the people’s tendency to put worship obligations—fasting—in front of ethical obligations, the prophet announces:
Is not this the fast that 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;

To be light, and salt, is to reach out to those in need, to share our bread, clothe the naked, provide shelter for the homeless. Those are the things we do as followers of Jesus. Whatever else we come hear for, for solace and healing, for hope, we also come to receive strength and inspiration to do those things, to be salt and light to the world.

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