Sometimes I wonder about Jesus. I mean, seriously, who would say such a thing? “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” Obviously, Jesus knows nothing about cooking, because salt NEVER looses it’s saltiness! The chemist in me knows that sodium chloride is a very stable substance. The ionic bond is very tight. Sodium is always happy to donate an electron to chlorine in order to make this happen. Therefore, salt never goes bad! About the only thing we can do to diminish its potency is to dissolve it in a liquid. So, what exactly is Jesus implying here?
Then he states “You are the light of the world. 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.” Who would ever consider putting a lamp under a bushel basket? Was this attempted by one of the disciples? Did they catch Mary Magdalene’s favorite basket on fire? Again, what exactly is Jesus implying here?
But wait, it gets worse! Jesus then says “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.” Seriously? It seems to me I recall a time when Jesus told his disciples it was O.K. to pluck heads of grain on the Sabbath which is a violation of the Holiness Code. [Mk 2:23] He also told them it was O.K. to eat with unwashed hands; yet another violation of the Holiness Code and a rather significant one at that! [Mt 15:2]
So, if you’re looking for me to give you a cute sermon filled with analogies about what it means to be salt and light, you’ve come to the wrong place! This text is not as easy to understand as it first appears. So this morning we’re not going to settle for sweet platitudes about being salt and light. Instead, we’re going to dig a little deeper and try to see our gospel lesson with a new set of eyes.
Let’s start with the images of salt, light of the world, and being a city on a hill. I spent some time this week reading all the scholars I trust to tell me what’s going on in our gospel lesson. I have to tell you, their answers were disappointing to say the least! Most modern scholars believe it’s pretty much impossible to recover the context of these sayings.
The only thing Matthew tells us, at the beginning of chapter 5 is that this teaching is offered to “the crowds.” [Mt 5:1] It’s a generic situation that offers no clues as to why Jesus offered this word of wisdom.
The images of putting a light under a basket and being a city in a hill are also found in the Gospel of Thomas. [Th 32, 33] Unfortunately, this is just a collection of teachings with no narrative context whatsoever.
Finally, another reference to being salt and light is found in Mark and Luke, [Mk 9:49-40, 4:21-23; Lk 14:34-35, 8:16-18] but the sayings which surround it are completely different from Matthew and are even more cryptic.
So, we really don’t know why Jesus said these things. There is no person or situation that prompted Jesus to respond in this way.
So where does this leave us? Well, it leaves us to speculate quite a bit. My approach to our gospel lesson is that Jesus never said anything casually or cluelessly. He always knew what he was doing. So, if we assume Jesus knew that salt never losses its saltiness, why would he say such a thing?
Here’s my take on the subject. When Jesus says “You are the salt of the earth,” he is telling us to be our true selves. Salt does what salt does. It can’t do anything else. In 1st century Israel, salt added zest to food. It was also used as a preservative. End of story. In any other application, it’s pretty much useless. You might as well throw it out or trample it under your feet.
Likewise, when Jesus says “You are the light of the world,” he is also telling us to be our true selves. Light does what light does. It can’t do anything else. In 1st century Israel, a single oil lamp “gives light to all in the house.” End of story. In any other application, light is pretty much useless. No one would be stupid enough to put a lamp under a bushel basket. It would either extinguish the flame, or catch the basket on fire! It’s a no brainer. Light is meant to shine. It stays true to itself no matter what.
Just to bring the point home, when Jesus says “You are a city built on a hill,” he is also telling us to be our true selves. A city built on a hill is…a city built on a hill! It can’t be anything else. There’s no way to hide it. In 1st century Israel, new cities were built on the rubble of old cities, which consisted mostly of stones and clay bricks. They were also fortified for safety and protection. This vantage point enabled them to see their enemies coming from a mile away. There’s no way to camouflage a city on a hill. It would be ridiculous to think otherwise!
Now, that sounds like the Jesus we know and love. I can roll with that! Perhaps, Jesus is trying to tell us to be true to who we are! Be true to who God created us to be. We are the salt of the earth. So, let’s be zesty and spicy. Let’s be bold in our commitment to season the world with the good news of Jesus, using the talents and abilities each of us uniquely possesses.
We are also the light of the world. So, let’s shine. Why would we want to hide the light of Christ that burns so brightly in our lives? The world needs to see our good works, our acts of justice, love and compassion, so they, too, have reason to shine.
We are also a city built on a hill. We can’t hide our relationship with Christ. It’s a part of who we are and should be easily seen by everyone.
Perhaps our gospel lesson is a call for us to be our genuine selves, warts and all. Perhaps it’s a call to celebrate the unique creations we are in Christ. This is something we’re not always good at doing. We often have preconceived notions about what a “good Christian” looks like. We usually don’t measure up to this standard, so we hide and suppress our true selves to save ourselves from being judged by others.
I would like to suggest this morning that Jesus doesn’t want us to be “good Christians.” He wants us to be “real Christians.” Do you understand the difference? He doesn’t want us to be perfect. He wants us to be God’s beloved who make mistakes but are most assuredly saved by grace. He wants us to be a little muddy around the edges so that the waters of baptism can cleanse and renew us. He wants us to know that in the Church of Jesus Christ, all are welcome, and that “all” includes all of us: the parts we like, and the parts we don’t like. So, perhaps the challenge for us this week, is to reflect on the ways we lose our saltiness and hide our light. It is only when we do this that we can become the spicy, shiny people God intends us to be. Amen?
Now, there’s one more item of business we need to cover this morning: Jesus’ strange statements in the second half of our gospel lesson. If you forgot them, let me refresh your memory: “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. 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.”
According to the Jesus Seminar, these verses reflect a controversy in the early Christian community over whether Old Testament Law was still binding on Christians. We see this argument in the book of Acts between Peter and Paul. The people Peter served were mainly Jewish and kept their Jewish identity and rituals as followers of Christ. The people Paul served were mainly Gentiles and they began to question if all these Jewish rules and regulations were actually necessary. Do we have to be circumcised? What is the big deal about eating meat that is offered to idols? Meat is meat. I’m hungry so why can’t I eat it? That was just the tip of the iceberg.
We see this same battle happening in the modern church. Some denominations have a rigid set of rules and regulations their members need to follow. Others, like ours, try to center our theology on love of God, neighbor and self.
Then there’s Jesus, who seemed to have a relaxed attitude toward the Law. He taught that the dual commandments to love God, and love our neighbor as much as we love ourself, sum up all the other commandments. He also spoke of the importance of following the spirit of the law, rather than the letter of the law. These things contradict what is being said in our gospel lesson.
The way Lutherans interpret Scripture is helpful here. Thankfully, we are not biblical fundamentalists. We don’t believe we have to follow every verse of the Bible as it is written. Instead, we begin by saying that Christ is the lens through which we see all of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments. The gospels carry more weight than the other books in the Bible. Martin Luther stated it best: “The Bible is the cradle wherein the Christ Child is laid.”
Secondly, we believe in letting Scripture interpret Scripture. In other words, we don’t look at passages in isolation. We see how they relate and inform one another. We also look for the overarching message.
In the case of the second half of our gospel lesson, I believe this teaching has more to do with Matthew than it does with Jesus. I cannot believe Christ wants us to follow every letter and stroke and letter of the Law, since he violated this very thing himself. This would make Jesus a hypocrite. If I know one thing for sure, Jesus was NO hypocrite. So I think we simply need to let these verses go, and focus on Jesus’ overarching message, of following the love commandments and following the spirit of the Law rather than the letter of the Law.
So that’s it for this morning. If you take anything away from my message I hope it is to be your authentic self. Be salty and shiny in your own unique way. I don’t believe Jesus wants us to be cookie cutter Christians. I think he wants us to be real people, flaws and all, who have been touched and saved and redeemed by a love that is so much greater than ourselves. AMEN
Copyright ©2020 by David Eck