Matthew 5:13-16: Being Salt and Light

I want to start by giving you some literary and geographical context for the Sermon on the Mount, which is contained in chapters 5, 6, and 7 of Matthew’s Gospel.

Literary context: In the chapters leading up to the Sermon on the Mount:

  1. Jesus is born
  2. Herod tries to kill Jesus but his parents escape to Egypt
  3. John baptizes Jesus
  4. Jesus is tempted, moves from Nazareth to Capernaum, and calls his disciples
  5. Jesus teaches his disciples by:
    1. Blessing them and, as I read the beatitudes, giving them some guidelines for how to sidestep common stumbling blocks on the spiritual path: wealth, cold indifference to suffering, arrogance, violence, injustice, hypocrisy, brutality, craving esteem, and delusion.
    2. And after blessing them he calls them to be salt and light
    3. Then in the remainder of the sermon, he teaches them about the traditions, traps, and transformations they will encounter as they walk the path he is setting before them

We will talk more about traditions, traps, and transformations later, but for now I want to talk about being salt and light, and I want to start with some geography, which I’ve given you in your handout. Capernaum was a town on the coast of the Sea of Galilee. It was Jesus’ home town from the time he was baptized until he was crucified. Like most towns in Galilee, it had a synagogue. And like all synagogues, it had a rabbi, a teacher who would have taught Jewish boys from the time they were very young, and he would have watched them closely to determine which were most gifted in studying Torah, the Law of Moses. These most gifted boys would have been invited to continue their studies in the synagogue, while the others would have been sent out to learn a trade, like building or fishing.

Jesus was a builder—a tekton in Greek—Peter, Andrew, James, and John were fishermen—halieus in Greek. Matthew was a tax collector. We don’t know the trades of the remaining seven disciples, but we do know that at least one of them, Andrew, was a follower of John the Baptist. What we do know is that all of them, Jesus included, lived outside of the inner circle of the synagogue. None of them had shown enough promise in their studies to continue beyond their elementary education in Torah, including Jesus.

So take a look at your maps:

Capernaum

The top map and picture show the location of the synagogue and the location of Peter’s house by the sea in Capernaum. Jesus, setting out on his self-taught ministry as a rabbi, by-passes the synagogue and goes down to the sea to choose his disciples. He chooses the ones who did not make the cut, and then he leads them past the synagogue again and up on a hillside away from the town, away from the established religious life, and he tells them:

“You are the salt of the earth . . . you are the light of the world.”

You who are poor, bereft, humble, and rejected are salt and light.

Now, when we think of salt, we think of seasoning, flavor, something that even in small amounts can heighten and bring out the best flavor of the food we eat. But there is more to the image of salt than flavor. Salt was a purifying agent. It was an essential ingredient in the holy anointing oil that was used to ordain Aaron and his sons to the priestly order:

30 You shall anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, in order that they may serve me as priests. 31 You shall say to the Israelites, “This shall be my holy anointing oil throughout your generations. 32 It shall not be used in any ordinary anointing of the body, and you shall make no other like it in composition; it is holy, and it shall be holy to you. . . . Take sweet spices . . . with pure frankincense . . . seasoned with salt, pure and holy; Exodus 30:30-35

Salt was an ingredient in every offering made in the temple and, because it was a preservative, was a symbol of God’s everlasting covenant with God’s people. When God gave the kingdom to David, God gave it as a “covenant of salt” meaning it would last forever and would never be revoked.

For Jesus to initiate his disciples by calling them “the salt of the earth” is to tell them that they too are to be a sign of God’s steadfast covenantal love for the earth.

These poor, bereft, humble, rejected men become a symbol of God’s everlasting covenant. And when we take up that calling, we too become the salt of the earth.

Paul acknowledges and affirms God’s selection of ordinary, humble people to carry on the Gospel mission when he writes:

2:1 When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. 2:2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. 2:3 And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. (1 Corinthians 2:1-3)

Paul was not the best of the best. There were other preachers and teachers who were more eloquent, more knowledgeable, and more impressive. But God chose what was weak to proclaim the power of Christ.

And I think that is why Jesus took his disciples up onto that hilltop to begin instructing them in their Gospel mission. Ho took them away from the synagogue and away from the established religion so that they could learn that their anointing was into a different kind of priesthood: a priesthood of mercy, peace, and justice.

“You are the salt of the earth . . . you are the light of the world.”

To be a priesthood of mercy, peace, and justice is to answer the call of Isaiah 58:

58:6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 58:7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 58:8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn. (Isaiah 58:6-8)

Jesus takes his disciples up on that hilltop to let them know that they are not an ordinary priesthood, but a city on a hill whose Gospel mission is to loose the bonds of injustice, let the oppressed go free, feed the hungry, house the homeless, clothe the naked, and make ourselves available to brothers and sisters in need. And when we do those things, we are the light of the world!

Did I say “ourselves”? Did I say “we”? I was supposed to be talking about the first disciples, wasn’t I? I was supposed to be talking about a group of fishermen and builders and tax collectors and who knows what else. How did “our” and “we” get in there?

Maybe it’s because I see so much of us in those first disciples. Look at us . . . really look around this sanctuary and see each other. We are not exactly a picture of establishment religion, are we? On a really good Sunday, we can scrape together 20 souls. But on many a Sunday we’re lucky if there are 10 of us. We’re not exactly the picture of congregational vitality: we are gray and aging and our energy sometimes flags. And we don’t exactly look like the congregation our parents had in mind when they envisioned the future church.

And yet . . . we are salt . . . we are light. Because we do make ourselves available to brothers and sisters in need, we do feed the hungry, we do loose the bonds of injustice!

Jesus didn’t say to his disciples “Clean the fish scales off your clothes, brush off the sawdust, wash the tarnish of imperial coin from your hands, and one day you will be salt and light.” He said, “You are salt . . . you are light” just exactly as you are right now: poor, bereft, humble, rejected. We do not have to look like our parents’ image of church to be salt and light for the world. So “let your light shine before others, so that others may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Amen.