You are the salt of the earth (A sermon on Matthew 5:13-20)

“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 under foot. (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 lampstand, 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.”

Yes, we are still in the Sermon on the Mount –the sermon that Jesus has been best known for throughout history – and we are still at the popular end of that sermon.

When I was a young Christian, still in my teens, I had a poster on my wall that featured the text of this sermon, beginning with the Beatitudes, of course, and including this section about us being the ‘salt of the earth’ and a ‘city built on a hill’.

These are empowering words! In John’s Gospel, Jesus is quoted as saying, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12), but here He says, “You are the light of the world!”. You can’t ask for a more encouraging statement than that or a more empowering passage than this one, at least until you get to the second half of the passage.

“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.”
(Matthew 5:17-20)

It is good, I think, that we follow a lectionary that tells us what sections of Scripture we need to read each week. If it was left up to me, I think I would have ended today’s reading with the bit about salt and light. I’d deal with this second half of the passage next week, at which point I’d organise somebody else to preach on it.

What is going on here? Jesus, the keeper of every letter of the Law, is not the Jesus I am familiar with. Indeed, this sounds a lot more like the Jesus my Islamic friends believe in – Jesus, the custodian of the law of God – than the Jesus I see depicted elsewhere in the Gospels and in the writings of Saint Paul. What exactly is Jesus saying here, and why contrast this with these affirmations about salt and light?

I’m sure you remember Cicero’s first rule of public speaking – “render your audience benevolent”. In other words, always begin your address by getting your audience onside, which we generally do by beginning with a joke.

I obviously didn’t begin with the joke today, largely because I’m trusting that my audience is already benevolent, and because I figure that if you’re not benevolent by now, the joke isn’t going to make a lot of difference anyway.

Is that what Jesus was doing here with all the ‘salt of the earth/light of the world’ talk? Was He trying to get everybody smiling before He laid the law on them, for certainly, these concluding words of Jesus are harsh, and they are confusing!

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17)

It’s not immediately obvious what Jesus means by ‘fulfilling’ the law and prophets, but the part that really confuses me is how those who break the commandments and teach others to break them get off more lightly than the Scribes and Pharisees who, from my understanding, did their best to keep all of them!

Are you keeping up with me here? Jesus 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.” (Matthew 5:19). Ok. That’s pretty bad – being called ‘the least’ in the Kingdom of Heaven – but at least you’re still a part of the Kingdom of Heaven.

What do you call the guy who graduates at the bottom of his year in medical school? You call him ‘doctor’, don’t you? He wasn’t the greatest in his class, but he still made it through, just like those who break the commandments and teach others to do so. They may be the least in the Kingdom of Heaven, but they are still there! Conversely, the Scribes and the Pharisees, who, from what we read in the rest of the New Testament, did everything they could to hold fast to even the most trivial of the commandments, they get an epic fail and are not there at all!

Maybe this is an indication that we shouldn’t be squeezing everything Jesus says in this passage too literally, and maybe I’m doing the text a disservice too by suggesting that there’s an enormous contrast between the sweetness and light of Jesus’ opening words and the dour and forbidding warnings parceled out at the end?

After all, those words of encouragement, “you are the salt of the earth” have a flip-side to them – namely, “that if salt loses its saltiness, it’s good for nothing but being thrown out and trampled under foot” (Matthew 5:13b). Is ‘you are the salt of the earth’ meant to be an encouragement or a warning?

And besides that, who is Jesus really addressing anyway when He says, “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13a)? I know we all immediately assume He’s talking to us, but we know full well really that He was talking first and foremost to whoever that group of people were who happened to be sitting around him that day back in first century Palestine, and the truth is that we don’t have a clue who those people were. We know a few of them by name (the disciples) but the vast majority of the people Jesus addressed these words to are complete unknowns!

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets” (Matthew 5:17)

I think that’s the best starting point through which we can unlock the ambiguities of this passage. It provides a context for everything Jesus says that follows.

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets”. It’s not a question that comes out of nowhere, is it? It’s a response to what people were saying or thinking about Jesus.

Why would anybody think that Jesus had come to abolish the law and prophets? Well … you don’t have to read very far through the New Testament to come up with lots of good reasons for thinking that this might have been exactly what Jesus was doing. Indeed, any of us who have read the Gospels know full well that Jesus was under constant attack from the very same scribes and Pharisees that He mentions in this passage for His alleged repeated failure to live in accordance with the Torah!

Jesus was particularly notorious for His apparent repeated failure to keep the fourth commandment – “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it Holy”

On the Sabbath Day, you will remember, you are not supposed to do any work (neither you nor your man-servant nor your maid-servant nor your ox nor your ass) but Jesus seemed to be quite happy to work as hard on the Sabbath as He did every other day of the week, and when pushed on the subject would say things like, “well, my Father in Heaven is working, so I’m working too!”(John 5:17), which is hardly a response that I think Moses would have been comfortable with.

And it wasn’t only the Sabbath laws that Jesus was accused of violating. He seemed to pay scant attention to the whole range of ceremonial rules about who you should have contact with and how you should wash and what you should eat and drink.  Jesus had the reputation, you may remember, for being “a glutton and a drunkard” (Matthew 11:19) – hardly an example of religious scrupulosity!

So whatever Jesus meant when He said, “I have come to fulfil the law”, He evidently didn’t mean what we normally mean when we talk about ‘fulfilling the law’ – namely, that we intend to keep it. Jesus was going to do something with ‘the Law’. He wasn’t going to dismiss it, but neither was He simply going to go around repeating it verbatim either, despite what He says about preserving every letter. 

If we go by the teachings that follow in this same Sermon on the Mount, ‘fulfilling’ the law seems to involve reinterpreting it to a degree. Even if we stick to this passage though, I think we get a clue as to what Jesus was up to in his ‘fulfilling of the law’ through the warning He gives at the end: “Unless your righteousness greatly exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven!” (Matthew 5:20)

That seems intimidating at first, for the scribes and the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were models of religiously piety and scrupulosity when it came to law-keeping! Keeping to the letter of the law was their thing, so if ‘righteousness’ and law-keeping are synonymous, we are all in trouble. But what if they’re not the same thing.

“I fast twice a week, and I give a tenth of my entire income.” (Luke 18:12)

That’s the Pharisee speaking, as depicted by Jesus in Luke chapter eighteen. He keeps to the letter of the law when it comes to fasting. He keeps to the letter of the law when it comes to tithing. Indeed, when it comes to keeping to the letter of the law, the Pharisees and their mates, the scribes, were exemplary.  They stayed away from all the ‘Thou shalt nots’ and they constructed their entire lives around the ‘Thou shalts’.  Nobody was more ethical or religious or morally upright than they were. It appears though that, for Jesus, this was not what ‘righteousness’ was about.

In Luke 10, Jesus told the story of a Scribe and a Levite who saw the prone body of a man on the road, and they passed by on the other side, presumably (at least in part) because they wanted to remain righteous by not touching something unclean, such as a dead body. For Jesus, this was not what ‘righteousness’ was about.

When we think of the lepers who came to Jesus (Matthew 8, Mark 1) or of the poor woman who couldn’t stop bleeding (Luke 8), they came to Jesus and they touched Jesus and Jesus touched them. No righteous Scribe or Pharisee would do that since it would make him unclean. For Jesus, that was not what righteousness was about.

Jesus had a reputation as a glutton and a drunkard, as the friend of tax-collectors and sinners! (Mathew 11:19). Evidently, keeping to the letter of the law and keeping yourself uncontaminated was not what Jesus thought righteousness was about.  

So, what is it about? “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid” That’s what it’s about! It’s about making a difference!

And Jesus is talking to us. Yes, He is obviously addressing the crowd sitting around him and, no, we have no idea who most of those people were because they were nobodies, but I think that’s the whole point. The people Jesus was speaking to who were light and salt – they could have been anybody.

Jesus wasn’t addressing the group about to be awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize – ‘you are the salt of the earth, the light of the world’. That would make sense, yes, but no, He was addressing a crowd of nobodies – a crowd of ordinary people like you and me who Jesus knew had the capacity to make a difference.

I was greatly encouraged this week when I heard this week that our brother, Julian Assange, was finally released from solitary confinement in Belmarsh Prison and allowed to mix with the regular prison population. I, along with a number of influential people have been campaigning for mercy for him for some time now. What was amazing though was that, according to what I’ve read, it was Julian’s fellow inmates at Belmarsh Prison whose petitions for mercy influenced the governor! There’s something very Biblical about that, I think. We are all capable of being salt and light.

We can be salt. We can shine. We’ve been shining our little light here in Dulwich Hill for a lot of years now. In the last week I’ve had the privilege of having a number of people in the community come up to me who hear my term as Parish Priest is coming to an end. They say, “but what about the way you’ve changed this place?”

Not only me, and not only us, but this community over the last 150 years – we’ve built schools and established community centres, helped the blind to see and the lame walk, and we’ve been good news to the poor of this village.

Of course, we know that things change, and we know that salt can fail at spicing things up, just as lights do grow dim. Even so, salt never really stops being salty, and even if the light is hidden for a while, it never goes out, and there’s no reason to think we won’t continue to shine on for another 150 years here yet.

You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world … let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13, 14, 16)

First Preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 9th of February 2020.

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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