Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 5, 2017
Matthew 5:13-20 Commentary
At a restaurant in California recently I asked the waitress if their Cioppino was good. She assured me it was. Cioppino is a wonderful seafood stew, and the server assured me theirs contained a lot of very fresh clams, shrimp, calamari, and more. I ordered it. And . . . it lacked all salt. Seemed like not so much as a shake of salt had been applied. Most of the seafood had had more salt clinging to it the day it came out of the ocean than it had in my bowl. And though the seafood was fresh and the tomato broth good, the whole dish fell flat. No salt, no flavor.
You are the salt of the earth.” That’s where Jesus starts this part of Matthew 5. Salt, of course, is one of the most sublime as well as one of the most ancient of all cooking spices and additives. Sodium chloride is the only mineral that we human beings take directly from the earth and eat. We would die without salt but we’d also find a good bit of otherwise tasty food to be dull and lifeless were it not for salt. Perhaps that’s why in history some cultures exchanged salt as money. The earliest roads were built to transport salt, the earliest taxes were levied on it, whole military campaigns were launched to secure salt. Salt gave Venice its start as a commercial trading empire in Europe and it helped Gandhi bring India to independence in the mid-twentieth century.
According to Jeffrey Steingarten’s book, The Man Who Ate Everything, we’re probably the first generation of earthlings to be paranoid about salt. Some people do legitimately have a low tolerance for salt, and people who already have high blood pressure need to monitor their sodium intake. But for the most part we need salt to live and the vast majority of us can handle about as much salt as we want.
On average Americans take in 12,000 milligrams of salt a day or about 266 shakes from a salt shaker. And again, why not? Salt is indispensable to good food. When used thoughtfully, it sharpens and defines flavors and aromas, it melds flavors in ways that transform bland dishes into something complex and wonderful. Salt controls the ripening of cheese, strengthens the gluten in bread, preserves meats, and just generally provides what Robert Farrar Capon called the “music of cookery, the indispensable bass line over which all tastes and smells form their harmonies.” Of course, even so, salt needs to be used well. Few things are more disappointing than finishing a dish at the stove only to remember too late that you forgot to add any salt. Then again, nothing can ruin a soup faster than too much salt (they say you can leech out some salt by floating raw potato slices on top of an over-salted soup but I don’t know . . .).
“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus said to his disciples. (Note: Jesus did not say to become salt but that by virtue of being a disciple, each of us just IS salt.) It was a striking image then and it’s a striking one now, but what does it imply for the life of discipleship? Well, I just mentioned the good effect salt has on the food we eat. Of course, to get that tasty effect, you have to mix the sodium chloride into the food. How foolish it would be to think that just having a box of kosher salt next to the stove will make a difference even if you never sprinkle it into the soup. If you ask a cook, “Did you add any salt?”, then the answer had better not be, “No, but I have a box of it close by. Isn’t that enough?”
That’s an absurd scenario, yet it seems pretty much to be the one Jesus has in mind. In verse 13 Jesus talks about salt losing its saltiness. Actually, however, in Greek Jesus wonders about salt becoming moronos, from which we derive our English word “moron,” or “fool.” If salt becomes foolish, Jesus asks, then what good is it?
To have salt but not use it, to have a shaker of salt sitting next to the stove but never to put any into the pot, is foolish. What’s the sense of having it there if you’re not going to add it to the food thoughtfully and with proper balance? You may as well toss it out the window for all the good such unused salt will do your dinner! Salt has a definite purpose and if you won’t use it for that purpose, then the salt becomes foolish to have around.
The implication for disciples is exceedingly curious: it means that we exist for mixing it up with the world. It means that for us to do our savory gospel task of making this world a better place, we need to be out there, being mixed up into people, culture, and society. Following hard on the heels of his Beatitudes, Jesus is saying that if you’re going to live those grace-filled attitudes, then it’s not enough to work inside the church community, it’s not enough to nurture a strong interior life of spirituality. No, the result of all your piety must be pouring yourself out onto this earth so as to bring out life’s complex and beautiful flavors.
To be useful and true salt, you need to mix into the world, bringing with you gospel savor. But the light still needs to shine, the pathways of God’s kingdom still need to be followed. Maybe it would be easier to let your light shine if you stayed in church all the time, never left home, so to speak. But literal salt that never leaves the shaker does nothing to add zing to your French Fries, and likewise Christian disciples who never interact with non-Christian people have no chance of reaching those people with the influence of that whole new world of God that just is the kingdom.
Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address
The Pharisees are the quintessential bad guys of the gospels. No single group proved more difficult for Jesus to deal with; no single group appeared to be less moved by Jesus. As Robert Capon once wrote, it’s hard to resist picturing the Pharisees as wearing black hats and twirling their moustaches like the outlaws in some Hollywood hiss-and-boo melodrama of the Old West. Next to the Pharisees, even the demon-possessed come off looking pretty good. At least Jesus was able to cast the demons out and so turn these once-possessed folks into friends. But not so the Pharisees–they just keep digging in their heels against the tug of Jesus’ ministry, getting progressively angrier until finally they get Jesus executed.
Throughout the gospels the Pharisees keep coming up like a bad burp. And the reason they are so sour is because the Pharisees saw in Jesus a threat to all that they held dear. For the Pharisees, the hopes and fears of all the years were met in God’s Law. The Torah, they believed, was God’s gift to his people through which they could earn salvation. Once they had the Law all sewn up in near-perfect moral living, then the Messiah would come.
And so they took care to study the Law, teach the Law, and above all to live the Law in every jot and tittle of their existences. At some point they had even decided that since God’s Law was so vital to their future happiness, they would further protect God’s Law by building a fence around it in the form of hundreds of secondary laws that they made up.
So when one day a rabbi named Jesus showed up only to start busting first one and then another of these various sub-regulations, the Pharisees saw red. This Jesus always broke the Pharisee version of the Sabbath, he did not avoid the houses of known sinners, he actually spoke openly with women on the streets, and in general he kept telling stories that made it sound like the Law was not the ticket to heaven after all.
This Jesus fellow was so laced with grace and so quick to forgive even those who had broken God’s Torah that after a while the Pharisees suspected that not only was this rabbi not the Christ, he was the Antichrist! The formula, after all, was simple: keeping the Law would one day bring the Messiah. Therefore, anyone who broke the Law could not himself be the Messiah but could only be a hindrance to the coming of the Christ!
So how shocking it must have been one day when Jesus said, “Don’t think for a minute that I came to get rid of the Law: I came to fulfill the Law in every detail. In fact, if you want to be in my kingdom, then you’ve got to live better than even the Pharisees do!” But how could someone who so freely embraced law-breakers claim to be the fulfillment of the Law? How could someone who always made it clear that the kingdom of God is a gift of grace turn right around and say that getting into the kingdom requires more earnest efforts than even the most devout Pharisee had ever achieved? Surely this struck many people as impossible.
Imagine a beginning piano student struggling to plink out the notes to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Then imagine this student’s piano teacher suddenly announcing, “I tell you the truth, Joey: unless your abilities to play the Chopin etudes exceed that of Vladimir Horowitz, you can no longer be in my class!” It would be enough to make little Joey quit! How could he ever get that good unless his teacher stuck with him?! He’d never make it to the level of Horowitz on his own! Indeed, very few people in the world could! So of what use is a piano teacher who sets the bar so impossibly high?
What were the disciples supposed to think about all this? Well obviously they were to conclude that something had somewhere gone wrong with their ideas about God’s Law. If Jesus really were the fulfillment of the Law, if how Jesus had been going at life really were an extended illustration of God’s Law in action, then the ideas that had been propagated by the Pharisees had been wrong all along.
To employ a modern phrase, Matthew 5 represents a “paradigm shift.” Jesus is turning the world on its head here. To show you what I mean, let’s start at the bottom in verse 20 which, in an upside-down world, is really the top anyway. What could Jesus have meant by holding up the Pharisees as role models–indeed, as imperfect role models at that? Did Jesus really want his disciples to adopt the tactics of the Pharisees ? Did Jesus want his disciples to define their righteousness by keeping track of the number of sinners they had avoided, the number of women they had refused to look at, the number of well-meaning folks who got screamed at for accidentally breaking some fussy little Sabbath regulation? Is that the kind of “greater-than-the-Pharisees” righteousness Jesus is recommending here?!
Of course not. The truth is that it would be impossible for most folks to live more purely than the Pharisees and anyway, the truth is that Jesus did not like the attitude of the Pharisees in the first place. Jesus is setting the bar impossibly high in verse 20 to be ironic. He’s reminding us that righteousness is a gift. A holy status before God is something we can’t achieve on our own, so God gives it to us in grace.
On the other hand, however, this grace-given righteousness leads to a new kind of life. No, you can’t earn your way into the kingdom by racking up brownie points with God. Then again, once you get into the kingdom by grace, you can’t pretend that living a moral life doesn’t matter, either. The righteousness of which Jesus is speaking in Matthew 5 is both gift and demand, both God’s grace and our responsibility.
The Law, Jesus says, is not quite what the Pharisees have taught you, but it’s not unimportant, either. In fact, the Law is beautiful. It shows you how God set up the cosmos. The Law is the blueprint for happy living in creation. “The Law,” Jesus says, “is terrific and I’m here to make it full and rich and complete. I’m here to reclaim this universe for God and so, naturally, I’m here to point to the Law as the best way to get on in God’s good world.” So you can’t get into the kingdom by your own sweat, but once you are in by grace, the Law gains a new urgency. Of course, Jesus admits, people follow the Law to varying degrees of success. Those who do less well will be called “least” those who do better will be called “great.” But did you notice that the least and the great are both “in the kingdom of heaven”? That was Jesus’ subtle way of reminding his listeners that being in or out of the kingdom is not a matter of moral merit points.
Leave it to Jesus to find a way to talk about even the self-righteous Pharisees and still manage to turn everything in the direction of grace alone!
A while back someone asked the preacher and writer Eugene Peterson what he would say if he were writing what he knew would be his very last sermon. He replied, “I think I would want to talk about things that are immediate and ordinary. In the kind of world we live in, the primary way that I can get people to be aware of God is to say, ‘Who are you going to have breakfast with tomorrow, and how are you going to treat that person?'”
Peterson suggests we need to stop thinking that being a Christian means always being part of only obvious religious contexts. We just need to pay attention to what the people around us are doing most every day and then help them do it in ways that glorify God. “In my last sermon, I guess I’d want to say, ‘Go home and be good to your spouse. Treat your children with respect. Do a good job at work.” We need to be salt in the real world, and that involves genuinely being with real people, listening to them well, and treating them as the little images of God they all are.
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