Matthew 5:13-20 (New Revised Standard Version)
13 “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 underfoot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 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.
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 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. 19 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. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
The Sermon on the Mount begins with beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12). In words that have inspired and confounded persons for centuries, Jesus declares what it means to be blessed by God. These blessings give birth to a calling to be agents of righteousness – salt and light on the earth. The Gospel reading for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany invites to consider what it means to be salt and light, so as to be expressions of God’s righteousness.
The Beatitudes, as Stanley Saunders suggests, are the practices that express righteousness. They are expressions of mercy, forgiveness, and justice. He writes that “this righteousness is the sum of our relationships, restored to their God-intended blessedness completed by grace and mercy” [Feasting on the Gospels--Matthew, Volume 1: A Feasting on the Word Commentary, p. 90]. This is the righteousness that will surpass that of the Scribes and Pharisees. Early on in the Sermon on the Mount we begin to realize that God is concerned about mercy and justice. That God has eyes on those whom society seeks to marginalize. The word here about the Law and the Prophets – that is the Scriptures – is a reminder that God has provided a vision for right living. Although Jesus appears at times to break the Law or set it aside, he has no such intention. The Law will not pass away, but it may need reframing and reinterpreting. Like many of us, the Scribes and the Pharisees, as portrayed in the Gospel of Matthew, seem to have fallen into the trap of making the Law an end rather than a means to the end. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sets things straight. The Law and the Prophets are the foundation upon which Jesus will set out his vision of justice and mercy. It is in the context that we can understand what Jesus means when he tells the disciples that they are salt and light.
What does it mean to be salt? Living, as I do, in a region where snow is a constant winter reality, I know that salt is something placed on roads to melt snow and ice. I doubt that Jesus had this use in mind. Salt also serves as a preservative – then and now. In the ancient world foods were cured with salt for future use since refrigeration was unknown, but sodium is present in most processed foods, performing a similar duty. In fact, it’s so prevalent in our foods that many of us are encouraged to reduce our salt intake. Salt has another property – it is used to add flavor or enhance the flavors already present in our foods. While salt is easily accessible to us, in the ancient world it was considered very precious. It held great value. It was something to be traded and it even had liturgical use. In this setting, Jesus seems to be saying, you are salt, so enhance and enliven the lives around you. If you don’t use this gift, if you’re not enhancing life, then you’ve lost your purpose. Jesus goes as far as issuing a word of judgment upon those who have lost their savor. Of course, that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.
As for light -- Jesus says to us: You have been made to shine. That’s your purpose as a disciple. You’re like a city on a hill. The light from the city serves as a beacon to travelers. As for hiding your lamp under a bushel basket – that’s absurd. If you do that you’ll either extinguish the light or the basket will catch fire. Either way, you’re defeating the purpose of the lamp. So, no one would make that kind of mistake. So, since we are light, we should let the light shine.
Being salt and light is what it means to be righteous. To be righteous is not a status to be gained, but, as Matthew Myer-Boulton writes, it is “an outworking of the stature you already enjoy. For you are the Light of the World, the Salt of the Earth, the small and unimpressive band of brothers and sisters – reviled and persecuted – that can and must, God willing make a broad and inspiring difference” (Feasting on the Gospels--Matthew, Volume 1, p. 84).
With this being our stature as disciples, we return to the relationship of the Law and Prophets to the righteous life. Again I turn to Stanley Saunders who writes:
The whole Law – all 613 commandments, was meant to reveal to Israel – and to enable Israel to reveal to the nations – What it means to be God’s people. To us, it seems that keeping the Law is a personal individual matter, but for Israel, and especially for Jesus, it was redemptive and revelatory expression of God’s presence in the life of the whole people of God.” (Feasting on the Gospels--Matthew, Volume 1, p. 88).
He continues by noting that it is God’s intent to “shape a just and faithful society that would be a light to the nations” (p. 88). We are salt and we are light, not just as individuals, but as a community of faith. God is at work shaping us into that “just and faithful society” that can serve as an agent of transformation – or to put it in Pauline terms, we have been given the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18).
Our calling – as disciples – is to be formed into that society that serves as salt and light. It is the Law and the Prophets, and as Christians we can add the Gospels and the Letters to the mix, so that God might use this Word to form us into a just society – to serve as a witness to the world. We are to be signs of God’s grace and mercy. That is, we’re not meant to simply exist on earth, waiting until we can escape to heaven. As Jesus understands the Kingdom of Heaven, it encompasses the earth.
God’s reign doesn’t come by way of conquest or coercion. It doesn’t share its identity with the state. That doesn’t mean that the gospel is non-political, it simply means that God and culture are not one and the same! Living in this world, seeking to do the will of God on earth as in heaven, we serve as salt and light by sowing seeds of the transformation of this world in which we dwell so that justice and mercy might prevail. Of course, we can’t do this on our own. It is something we do in partnership with God and with the body of Christ present on earth. In this the righteousness of God is revealed.