Salt and Light

Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber ...

The Sermon on the Mount. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Matthew 5:13-16

These four verses form the pivot on which the whole Sermon on the Mount hinges. They follow the Beatitudes, which describe those who comprise the Kingdom of Heaven, and precede Jesus’ description of how being a member of that kingdom is to work in this world. These verses give two metaphors that summarize the first and give a setting for the second.

“You are the salt of the earth”. Notice, first and foremost, that this is a simple declarative sentence.  Jesus doesn’t say “you must be” or “you should be” or even “try to be”, he says “you are”. By being in the kingdom we are the salt of the earth. But what does this mean? Jesus here is not debating with the scribes, those trained in finding hidden meanings and working out complex applications, but to his disciples (5:1) and, perhaps, a crowd of common people (8:1); Simple people who would have taken it pretty much at face value. In their experience salt did two things: it preserved food, and it made it taste better. So the kingdom is here in the world to preserve it (surely an easy idea for his listeners who were used to thinking of Israel in these terms anyway) and to give it some flavour.

It is sad to think that although many people today would agree that the church is (or, at least, that it should be) a bastion of morality—whether they like that morality or not—very few see Christians as adding zest to this world. The concepts “Puritan” and “spice of life” just don’t belong together for most people, though Jesus says they should.

Then comes what, at first glance, looks like a warning: “If the salt loses its saltiness how can it be made salty again? It is useless…” Is Jesus, after simply declaring that we are salt, now telling us that we have to work at staying salt? That seems, to me, unlikely, for what does salt do to remain salty? Rather, I would suggest, Jesus is saying something more positive in a rhetorical way: God has made us to be salt in the world but salt that is no different to the world wouldn’t be salty, so is it likely that God would make his kingdom indistinguishable from the world?

The children of the kingdom are different from the children of the world, Jesus is saying, for a reason. Different so that they can accomplish the purposes of God. We are not to be ashamed of being different, nor must we try to blend in with the world around us. We must simply be what God has made us.

Jesus now changes the metaphor: “You are the light of the world”. Again a simple declarative sentence. No effort needed, no goal to attain, we are! These words bring to mind the prologue to John’s gospel: “In [Jesus] was life and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not comprehend it.” Is Jesus the light or are we? Well, yes, it is both because the life we now live as members of the kingdom is the life of Jesus. In John’s words in his first epistle “as he was, so are we in this world”. Or we might put it in Paul’s words: It is no longer I that lives but Christ lives in me.” Again, this is not a call to action. We don’t have to try to set ourselves afire or stir ourselves up, we just are what we are.

Jesus now seems to introduce a third metaphor here: “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden”, but I think he is rather extending the light metaphor. In those days, when most buildings were made out of earth, a city on a hill might well blend in and be missed by the casual glance, at least in the day time. But at night, when the residents light their houses, how it would stand out! This, surely, is the image Jesus is invoking. The kingdom is the light, implying that the rest of the world is in darkness, night, and so the kingdom (city) of God stands out clearly, a beacon of hope and safety.

“No-one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket but on a lampstand and it gives light to all in the house.” Is this (at last) a call to action on our part? I think not. Rather, this parallels in a more positive way, the earlier comment about the unsalty salt. For who is it that lights the lamp? Not us, surely, but God. And God is certainly not silly enough to light a lamp and hide it. Therefore wherever we are, it must be the lampstand God has prepared for us. So we can, in a very real sense, enter into his rest. We are not only what he wants us to be, we are where he wants us. We are responsible for neither, we are simply responsible to be, and to live in response to his Spirit.

And so it comes as no surprise that Jesus ends the metaphor with a very passive injunction: “Let your light so shine before men…” Let, allow, don’t obstruct. Not “cause”, not “stir up your flame”, not “force it out”. Just be yourself—your new self—for you are the salt, the light. This is the lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes.

There is no room here for pride nor for false humility. Pride is ruled out because it clearly is God’s doing, not ours. False humility is out because God has transformed us into something useful and wonderful. We are no longer worms, pitiful sinners, for the old person has died and the life in us is Jesus, and that is nothing to be ashamed of!


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3 Responses to “Salt and Light”

  1. treegestalt Says:

    (I don’t know how I missed this post!)

    If you look at how NT Wright frames the work of Jesus, as he & his contemporaries probably saw it — he’d be addressing “Israel” with this passage. Telling them ~Poop or get out of the chosen people! Getting born Jewish won’t do it anymore!

    The main first century Middle Eastern use for salt — is as a catalyst for burning dung cleanly. For baking. It doesn’t get literally used up — but eventually enough impurities get into it to destroy the catalytic properties. By then it probably tastes nasty as well; I wouldn’t know.

    The ‘city on the hill is, of course, Jerusalem.

    Christians can usefully apply this passage to themselves in our times, and I think you’ve drawn some good implications — but the main thought, to me, is that rather than working to successfully emulate and implement anything, we need to be asking God — and awaiting any hint — His will in whatever situation comes to hand.

    • thoughtfulspirituality Says:

      Appreciate the comments, as always.

      There was another idea I heard of how salt could become unsalty: That their salt was pretty impure and that over time moisture would leach out the true salt leaving mostly impurities. Either way, it is clear that from their point of view salt can lose its saltiness, something that seems odd to us with our pure salt.

  2. Saltness | sixbrownbears Says:

    […] Salt and Light ( […]

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