When the water in the Dead Sea evaporates, it leaves behind both salt and a mineral that looks a like salt, gypsum. Obviously, gypsum doesn’t have any of the qualities of salt (like saltiness) and it has different uses than salt. But as the saying implies, if it walks like a duck, it isn’t odd to think it might quack like one too! It is likely gypsum that is in mind with Jesus’s opening illustration. There is no adding saltiness to something that is fundamentally not salt. And what good is gypsum when what you need is salt? Gypsum is useless for preserving and flavouring food.
Jesus tells those who are gathered, likely made up of a crowd of people as well as his disciples, whom we know are close (verse 1), that they “are the salt of the earth” (see the textual point below about the use of the second person plural throughout Jesus’s sermon). Not only are they the salt of the earth, they are the “light of the world.” Salt and light are two distinctly recognizable entities, undeniable from their inherent characteristics that others experience: tasting saltiness, seeing light.
Having just told them through the Beatitudes that they belong in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus now tells them how they function in that kingdom as salt and light—if they live true. Discussed last week, the privileges and responsibilities of kingdom living found in the Beatitudes are being talked about here. The Beatitudes are some of the “good works” Jesus values in verse 16. In what will be next week’s lectionary text, Jesus immediately provides more examples of good works that might lead others to give glory to the Father.
But for now, we’re focusing on the message found in the images Jesus uses with salt and light. When Jesus talks about salt losing its taste, he uses a verb that—when not talking about salt—means “to make or show to be foolish.” Think Romans 1.22: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools…” exchanging the true God for idols. We are meant to understand that losing our saltiness is a matter of becoming foolish towards God, for it is God who tramples what does not belong to him at the final judgement.
When it comes to being like light, Jesus speaks the obvious. A city built on a hill can’t hide. The lighthouse’s purpose is to be a beacon that catches attention and communicates a message. When you try to cover a lamp you’ve just lit, you are trying to put it out—on the whole, a rather foolish, contradictory set of activities!
Like salt is to taste, light is to sight, and Jesus formulates an even stronger object lesson with light. Salt that isn’t actually salt will be thrown out because it’s useless, but a light can be of great benefit to others to the point that they worship the God behind your good works.
Verse 17 marks a shift in the sermon, as though Jesus wants to meet some objections head on. In essence, he shows himself to be the salt and light in flesh. He promises that he has come to “fulfill” the law and the prophets, in essence all of the Old Testament, not replace it. He isn’t trying to put a “bushel” on God’s ordinances for the Jewish people, nor is he some counterfeit (like Dead Sea’s gypsum is to its salt). No, Jesus Christ is the fullness of righteousness, the fullness of good works that lead to the glorification of the Father in heaven. Jesus’s time on earth models to us the salt and light of God’s plans and intentions. In him we see the brightness and taste the flavourful preservation of “the image of the invisible God” who reconciles all things.
In the way that Jesus lived, taught, healed, preached, abided with God and God’s people, we see the light that shines for the goodness of others; we taste our own preservation through his works. He does so in ways that are completely out of sync with the ways of the world, and calls us to do the same—even within the confines of our religious expressions.
Jesus says that we will not enter the kingdom of heaven unless our righteousness is greater than the scribes and the Pharisees. When taken in isolation, we might foolishly think that Jesus is preaching a works righteousness. But what he is actually doing is completing the imagery of salt and light: unless we be what we are, people in his kingdom, then we are not actually people of his kingdom. It is a bit of a circular explanation: we can only be what we are, salt and light. If we are not those things, then we were not them. Just as the Christ, through whom the world was made, cannot but be the one who fulfills all that God has for the world.
Throughout Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount there are instances of the emphatic use of “you,” “your” and “yours.” Matthew does this by actually adding the word (it isn’t necessary given that case endings on verbs supply the person and number of the subject). It’s also important to note that those which appear in this week’s passage are all in plural form. Jesus is preaching to his community of disciples…
The Apple TV show “Loot” stars Maya Rudolph as 45-year-old Molly Wells, a mega billionaire trying to find her purpose and survive her very public divorce from a tech giant with some dignity by getting more involved in her charitable foundation. On the one hand, she does a lot of good with her money, and on the other, she easily falls into the trappings of her wealth and the kind of lifestyle it allows her to have. Even still, the ten episodes of this first season really tell the story of a woman on the way to being different, and others in her social strata notice. There’s a point where a fellow billionaire philanthropist tells her, “You’re different than other women… Fuller.” Molly makes a joke about how she is still going to eat dessert, deflecting (or assuming?) that the comment is about her weight. The man sits back in his chair, looks at her admirably, and slowly, meaningfully says to her, “No. You are everything.”
Jesus Christ, as the fulfillment of the law, is noticeably different, fuller… he is everything. Unlike Molly, he was so from the beginning, and has shown us how to live in a way that is different, fuller, and connected to the source of everything. The scene between Molly and her would-be love interest at the dinner table reminds us that people are watching for beauty, they will notice when we are different, even if it is a more internal change than an external one. And instead of praising us, some may even be encouraged by the beauty of our salty, vibrantly bright witness, that they sit back and praise God.
There was an adult in one of the congregations I served who would regularly compel the entire congregation to sing, “This Little Light of Mine.” He often felt prompted to do so after we spent time sharing our reasons for being thankful to God as a congregation. Some found it frustrating and childish, but I (when I wasn’t worrying how others judged it) often found it pure and true, full of faith and purpose: having heard witness of the goodness of God, this man wished us to commit ourselves to that same goodness, to be salt and light in a broken world and hurting earth.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 5, 2023
Matthew 5:13-20 Commentary