We’re in the second of five weeks of passages from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as recounted by Matthew. And once again we are tempted to hear Jesus’ words as requirement rather than blessing. But just like last week’s blessings, Jesus doesn’t say, “If you want to become salt and light, do this….” Or, “before I’ll call you salt and light, I’ll need to see this from you….” Rather, he says both simply and directly, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”
It is sheer blessing, commendation, affirmation, and commissioning.
Of course, Jesus goes on to say that salt that has lost its saltiness is useless and that light wasn’t made to be put under a bushel. But as David Lose, preaching chair at Luther Seminary says…Does salt really lose its saltiness? Doesn’t it just dissolve? And are candles ever put under bushel baskets? Wouldn’t that snuff the flame or, worse, start a fire? Maybe Jesus is implying that one can lose one’s status as salt and light. Or maybe he’s just naming the absurdity of the possibility of losing one’s character as salt and light. “You are the salt of the earth! You are the light of the world. That’s the way it is and that’s the way it will stay. Period.”
The real significance, says my favorite Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, is that Jesus designates his community of followers, the ones who obey the Torah command to love God and to love neighbor, as salt and light. The “righteousness that exceeds” is not about moralism or self-enhancement through “goodness.” Rather, it concerns a reach beyond the self to the neighborhood and the world.
So think with me momentarily about these metaphors.
Salt was a precious commodity in the Roman Empire. Slaves were traded for salt. According to the historian Pliny the Elder, Roman soldiers were often paid with salt.. That’s where the expression “being worth one’s salt” comes from. The Latin word for salt, sal, is the basis for the English word salary! In the time of Jesus, salt was precious! Someone has estimated that in the time of Jesus, this container of salt would be worth more than a day’s salary! Salt was a precious commodity!—Jesus is saying, “You are precious!” You are valuable. You are precious to me, and you are also precious to the world.
From the Jerusalem Talmud comes these words: The world can live without pepper but the world cannot live without salt! Salt was a frequent theme within Jewish culture and religious life. In Biblical times, it symbolized the making of a covenant. It was attributed magical powers of protection over evil and it invoked hope for permanence and blessing. Newborn babies were rubbed with salt and new homeowners were give the gift of bread with salt. Salt is used to make meat kosher. Salt was the food preservative par excellence in biblical times. According to priestly law, all sacrifices were to be salted as well: “You shall season your every offering of meal with salt; you shall not omit from your meal offering the salt of your covenant with God; with all your offerings you must offer salt.
“The phrase melah berit eloheikha,” (“salt of your covenant with God,” Lev. 2:13) “refers to the binding, God-ordained obligation, or commitment to use salt.
According to medieval Jewish authorities, salt must be set on a table before a meal is begun “because it protects one against Satan’s denunciations.” They taught that if one dipped his bread three times into salt when reciting the benediction, and if one ate salt after each meal, he would be protected against harm. For this reason, salt was used in many rites connected with birth, marriage and death, as well as in medicine.
I came across a Roman proverb which may well have been common during the time of the earthly ministry of Jesus. “Nil sole et sale utilius.” There is nothing more useful than the sun and salt. In a time when there was no refrigeration, salt was essential for the preservation of food. Salt preserves. The presence of followers of Jesus in the world is a preserving influence.
“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says. Your presence—in your community, at school, at your workplace, in your circle of influence—hinders corruption and rottenness.
You may remember the formula for pure salt is sodium chloride. And without an adequate amount of sodium, your body can go into shock. A medical dictionary defines hyponatremia as an abnormally low concentration of sodium in the blood. A common cause of hyponatremia is excessive sweating, like when you’re running a marathon. The more you sweat, the more sodium you lose. And you need to replace that fluid. Not just water. You also need sodiumand chloride, or your electrolytes will become depleted and you will be in danger of suffering from hyponatremia.
Here are some of the symptoms of hyponatremia: fatigue, lightheadedness, weakness, cramping, nausea, dizziness, confusion, disorientation, seizures, coma, and, in the most severe cases, death.
Jesus says to you and to me, “You are the salt of the earth. You are not only precious, but you are useful and you are essential for life.” Your community needs you. Your workplace needs you. Your loved ones and friends who don’t know Jesus need you. I don’t say that to be arrogant. I say it because it’s true. Salt is essential for life! Listen to what happens to a culture when the people of God are nowhere to be found: fatigue, lightheadedness, weakness, cramping, nausea, dizziness, confusion, disorientation, seizures, coma, and death.
Like salt, our care of others will bring out the best of a world that has turned sour. But that is not enough. Jesus continued. You are not only salt but you are a light to the world. You are to be the light that shines on the world. The world needs more than salt; the world also needs the light of Christ.
Light is a powerful metaphor. English writer John Lyly so poetically writes: “The sun shineth upon the dunghill, and is not corrupted.” Have you ever thought that light is aggressive? It is. When you open a curtain in a lighted room to the outside darkness, the light spills out, the darkness does not spill in. Light pushes back the darkness. Martin Luther King created this powerful image: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
One of my favorite sayings attributed to the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius is: “It is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.” There is much to complain or worry about in this world: much evil, confusion, suffering. Darkness. This proverb suggests that we do something about it, rather than just talk. No matter how small the candle we light, no matter how insignificant our positive action, it can have an effect.
Light is a familiar metaphor in scripture:
Psalm 36:9 says of God, “in your light we see light.”
Psalm 119:105 says of the scriptures, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”
Isaiah 42:6 told Israel that God intended them to be “a light to the nations,” i.e., to all the world.
Jesus adopted the metaphor for himself in John 9:5: “I am the light of the world”
Now Jesus goes farther. He says we are the light. Do we even begin realize what a dramatic statement that is? Yes, we light candles. We do things. We make a difference. But we also are the candle. We are the children of God. We are the difference. Like the radiance of a lamp, we can enlighten a world that is floundering in darkness. We can be a city set on a mountain for all to see, a refuge and safe haven in a world threatened by hatred and terror.
The great mystery of ministry is that while we ourselves are overwhelmed by our own weaknesses and limitations, we can still be so transparent that the Spirit of God, the divine counselor, can shine through us and bring light to others. So writes Henri Nouwen. It’s easy to get caught up in all kinds of things that draw us away from the light of Christ. It’s easy to get fearful about the conditions of our world, difficulties at work, family issues, concerns about money and the economy. It is easy to spend a great deal of time in worry.
Gratitude is the most powerful experience of God’s presence on a daily basis. When you lose gratitude you start to feel sorry for yourself, or resentful or fearful. If you know a reason to be grateful you can face almost anything. If you stop and think about what makes you feel grateful, it changes the way you think. You stop fixating on your worries and start looking for signs of God’s presence. It trains your mind to see God’s grace.
Yes, darkness is real and we ignore it at our peril. Our challenge, and often our sin, is to not be overwhelmed or dwell on the darkness. Grace is also real and powerful. Christ is the light the shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. We are the people of Naphtali and Zebulon, and the fishermen who followed Jesus, the martyrs who lived and died for Jesus. We are a community of salt and light to the world.
Jesus did not say, “You are to be the light for the church.” The Bible does not say, “When you come to church, turn on your light. When you come to the church, let everyone see how devout and pious you are. When you come to the church, turn on your religious energy.” No. When you leave this church and get in your car and drive out of the parking lot and into your neighborhoods, into your schools, into your classrooms, into your factories and offices, let your light shine for Jesus Christ. You, you, you, you are the light of the world. Let the world see your light, so that the darkness is pushed away. You are the salt for the world. You are needed, you are essential, you are precious. Preserve and bring out the best in those around you.
The choir sang it so beautifully this morning – My life is in your hands, my life is in your hands, My love for you will grow, my God – your light in me will shine.
Sheer blessing, commendation, affirmation and commissioning. Amen.