Of Salt & Light
The Sermon on the Mount covers three chapters in Matthew’s gospel and has remained a touchstone of Christian teaching over the centuries. Its topics include blessings to believers as well as warnings and specific directions for life. Through its message we are made aware of how God expects us to live as his people.
Before I begin to go deeper into the selection from the Sermon for today, I want us to remember that these words were first spoken not to those who identified as Christian but to those who identified as Jews. These words were spoken to encourage and instruct those known in history as the Chosen People. It was a call for them to remember that they had been shown an ethic, a way of living that would enable them to be a light to the nations and reveal to others the God of creation. Throughout the centuries the people were ever reminded that they had been created as a nation by God to draw other nations to God.
Under the Roman occupation, everything the people did was subject to the scrutiny of those sent by Rome to rule the area. The people were no doubt traumatized by this and had likely allowed the presence of the Roman occupiers to change their community life. Into this situation God came in Jesus to remind the people to whom they ultimately were accountable for their lives and to challenge them to once again commit themselves to living full and free lives as the people of God.
Remember the words of Jesus when challenged about paying taxes? He took a coin and when asked whose image was on it received the answer: Caesar. To which he replied: “Give Caesar what is Caesar’s; but give God what is God’s. While showing no disrespect to Caesar, he encouraged the people to remember that they were in a relationship with God which required of them obedience to a law that was greater than Caesar.
Now it is interesting that the first thing Jesus says after the Beatitudes is about being the salt of the earth and the light of the world. What comes to mind when we call someone the salt of the earth? I think of a person who is honest and genuine; someone who lives in such a way as to do their neighbour no harm. I believe that that is what Jesus is trying to remind the people about here. They need to be honest and genuine about who they are. They need to remember to live in such a way as to do their neighbour no harm. The rest of the Sermon gives practical examples of honest and genuine living.
But if we fail to be honest and genuine; if we start doing our neighbour harm, we can no longer be called the salt of the earth. I have never experienced salt that has no taste, but I am sure that if I ever found such a thing had happened, I would throw it away. That is exactly what obviously did happen in that time. If salt stopped being what it was supposed to be and was adding nothing to what it was intended to help, then the only solution would be to cast it aside and let it be trampled underfoot.
The second image Jesus uses is that of light. The people were called to be a light to the world. Their way of living with one another was to be a beacon that would encourage others to want to come to God. But just as a city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden so the people are not to hide who they really are. If they acknowledge themselves to be the people of God, then they need to show it by the decisions they make, the words they speak and the actions they take. No one who wants to shed light in a space takes a lamp and places it under a bushel; it is put on a stand where its light can illuminate the whole area. While this makes perfect sense when speaking of an object such as a lamp, when it comes to living the life of a believer in plain sight of the world, we tend to become more circumspect.
Yet we can be encouraged to know that our struggle is not unlike the struggle of the people in the time when Jesus lived on this earth. They had obviously retreated into their synagogues and temples. They lived their lives as people of God in places where they felt safe and not exposed. No doubt they were seeking how to cope with being under the rule of the Romans and not running the risk of punishment or even death for breaking Roman law. But such fear had no doubt paralyzed them and left them in a quandary as to whether they could be faithful to God and still live in the society around them in relative safety. But note that everything Jesus reminds them of are things against which there is no law. Yet even if there was a law, the people are reminded that their relationship to God and to each other supersedes any law that humans might ever create or enforce. Paul emphasizes this in writing to the church in Rome where he reminds the people to owe no one anything except to love another – against this there is no law.
The people may go beyond what is ever expected of citizens under the occupation but if they truly believe themselves to be the people of God then they need to show that first and foremost. In this way others will see who and what the followers of God truly are and may come to worship and follow God themselves.
As I mentioned at the beginning, these words were spoken first to people who did not identify as Christian; but these words are now our words as well. We acknowledge that the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ message to us and so the instructions contained therein are as much for us as they were for the people of that day.
We may not live in a world that oppresses us as the Roman occupation did, but we still can find ourselves in a world that seeks to limit our ability to worship and serve our God. And while we cannot by ourselves influence the whole world, we can do our part to ensure that we reveal ourselves as people who are the salt of the earth and as people not afraid to reveal who we are and so be a light to the world.
As tensions in the world increase again, may we hold true to the lessons of the Sermon on the Mount and seek to live our lives ever conscious of our faith in God and our responsibility to live as God’s people. And so be encouraged to go out into God’s world in peace to love and serve the Lord our God.