Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
Salt and Light
13 “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.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 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. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
As we said yesterday, our gospel readings are now coming from the part of Matthew that’s known as the Sermon on the Mount – chapters five, six and seven. We also said that most New Testament scholars don’t believe this part of Matthew actually reports a sermon that Jesus preached on a single occasion. These scholars think it was probably a collection of what Matthew thought were core teachings of Jesus, ones that he put together at the beginning of his account of his life and teachings.
We also said yesterday that the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount have a theme that kind of unifies them – that as followers of Jesus, we’re supposed to be distinctive from the world at large – we’re supposed to be a ‘counter-culture.’ As we grow in our faith and in knowledge of Jesus’ life and teachings, as we live more in imitation of him, our lives are meant to show more and more the characteristics he outlines in these teachings.
This short passage we’re thinking about today is made up of two well-known metaphors Jesus used to describe the relationship of his followers to the world around them. These are familiar metaphors, and maybe because they’re so familiar, we probably fail to give them the thought they deserve.
For instance, most people read these metaphors as telling us what we’re supposed to be, rather than as a statement of what we are. And that seems like a critical distinction. Jesus doesn’t say that his followers should be the salt of the earth and the light of the world – he says we are the salt of the earth and the and light of the world. He declares it in what’s called ‘performative’ language, which means that by declaring it, he makes it so. Like the language used in a wedding to declare the couple husband and wife. Declaring it makes it so. Jesus declares his followers to be the salt and light of the world, and because he says it, it’s true.
As you might be aware, salt was used for a lot of different things in the ancient world, so that means it has a lot of symbolic significance in various parts of the Bible. Certain sacrifices were flavored with salt. Salt was used medicinally to clean and heal wounds. Salt was used in purification rituals, so it was clearly thought of as making things pure. It was also used as a preservative (as it is today), to keep food from spoiling. But salt also represented the bonds of friendship and community among people. The phrase ‘sharing salt’ was used the same way we use the phrase ‘breaking bread’ – to indicate sharing a meal that bound people together. Sometimes salt was used as currency, especially for soldiers, which is why somebody who gets things done is still said to be “worth his salt.” And, of course, salt represented flavor, making life more enjoyable.
So which of these did Jesus have in mind? Nobody knows for sure, of course. But it seems reasonable to think that Jesus was saying that his followers were to have the same variety of important roles in society that salt has in our daily lives. And what’s more, Jesus seems to be saying that if we fail to be what we’re intended to be – if we fail to be the salt of the earth, we’re useless – we’re fit to be trampled on.
It’s probably important for us to stop and think about the fact that salt only has value because it introduces unique qualities that aren’t already found in the food. It makes the food taste better because it tastes different. It preserves the food because it introduces a different chemistry. And so on. So for us as followers of Jesus, we’re really only faithful to our calling if we resist the temptation to blend in with the culture around us. As Jesus says, if we don’t introduce any distinctive flavor, we might as well be thrown out and walked on.
The role of light is more obvious, I suppose. We can’t function as well in the dark as we do in the light, and there’s also danger in darkness. Evil things are done under cover of darkness and evil people lurk in the dark. But that metaphor makes a very similar point – that the followers of Jesus are meant to bring illumination that makes life easier and works against evil.
So what are this distinctive flavor and this illumination we’re supposed to be contributing to the world? It seems to me that we function as salt and light in two important ways. One of them by is sharing the story of Jesus and what it tells us about God’s love for us. The other is by allowing the ‘fruit of the spirit’ to ripen in us so that the world benefits – love, joy, peace, goodness, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Part of being followers of Jesus is that we’re always to be asking how we can be ‘salt and light’ in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. I think you could make the case that this is an especially vital role in our time, because of the turmoil going on in our country and around the world.
It seems to me that like salt, we can be preservative – we can encourage people to hold onto what is best about human society, without lapsing into bitterness and frustration. We can also add flavor – we can be intentional about being cheerful and good-humored and hopeful in our contacts with others. And we can be a force for healing – to offer consolation for the losses people are suffering. We can offer the assurance that as painful and frightening as these times are, healing will follow, and times of joy and blessing will return.
It might be true that never in our lifetimes has it been more important for followers of Jesus to be mindful – in all of our contacts with others – of how we can be ‘salt and light’ in ways that bring hope to the world and glory to our God.
Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for the privilege of being the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In this challenging time, help us to live out that calling as never before. Help us be a distinctive presence, one that restores flavor to life and light in the darkness. In all things, let our influence make your love known. Amen.
(The listed readings for today are Psalms 66 and 116; Exodus 32:21-34; and I Thessalonians 1:1-10. Our readings come from the NIV Bible as posted on Biblica.org.)