Matthew 5: 13-20
Parallel Mark 9:49-50 and 4:21, Luke 14: 35-35, 8: 16, 11:33 and 16: 16-17
Highlighted words will have comment on translation below
13 “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.
17 “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.
Both Mark and Luke have individual sayings from this portion of the Sermon on the Mount scattered throughout their gospels, but Matthew places them in a crucial place immediately after the opening of the Sermon to help frame the identity the community is to adopt and to connect it with the scripture. As mentioned earlier, Jesus probably used these sayings multiple times, but Matthew has given us a tightly woven net composed of these saying to capture men and women who are being called into the community of disciples. They have been called to choose the wisdom of the Sermon, to embrace the blessedness or happiness of the kingdom of heaven and now they are called to their vocation and connected with the gift and vocation of Israel.
Salt in the modern world is a seasoning, salt in the ancient world was a preservative and that is a critical distinction. Salt is not what keeps the world tasting better, followers of Christ were not called to be the spice of life for the world. Instead salt in a world before refrigeration was that which preserves the earth. They are not called to become salt, they already are. The throughout this section is plural so ‘all of you’ are the salt of the earth and the light to the world. Even though salt is primarily for preservation it does have a distinctive taste, it does make itself tasted with the rest of the meal that is to be consumed. The disciples and hearers are not given a choice of whether they will accept the vocation of being salt, but they can choose the foolish path of not living as salt. The word translated ‘lost its taste’ is the Greek world moraino which literally means to become foolish. This is the verbal form of the word we get the English moron from. As I mentioned in the previous discussion of the Beatitudes an underappreciated linkage of the Sermon on the Mount is to wisdom literature with its choices between the wise and foolish, righteous or wicked and here salt of the earth and foolish salt. There is a vocation in the kingdom of heaven for the sake of the world for the hearers of Jesus’ words who live according to them, but for those who take the path of becoming foolish there is no longer a use for them, they are not called to be salt for their own sake but for the sake of the earth. They, like Israel before them, were given their vocation to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth and if they choose to live in a way that is not distinctive from the earth that they serve then they are no longer good for anything.
Light is another frequent image in scripture for the vocation of the people of God. For example:
I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out from the prison those who sit in darkness. (Isaiah 42: 6-7 emphasis mine)
he says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth. (Isaiah 49:6, emphasis mine)
We have already had Jesus identified as a great light (Matthew 4: 16 quoting Isaiah 9:2) and here the vocation of light is granted to those gathered around Jesus and hearing these words. In combination with the image of light is the image of the city on a hill which is meant to be visible. This also taps into Isaiah’s imagery of Jerusalem being a place where the nations are drawn to:
In the days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. May people will come and say, “Come, let us go to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2:2-3)
But now the mountain is not the temple mount in Jerusalem but the mountain of the Sermon on the Mount near Capernaum. The transition back to the choice of wisdom literature between wise and foolish is presented. The people do not have the choice to be light, but one can make the foolish choice to put a light under a bushel basket instead of on a light stand. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer would remind his students, “The followers are the visible community of faith: their discipleship is a visible act which separates them from the world—or it is not discipleship.” (DBWE 4:113) The community of disciples is to be light in the midst of the darkness, they are the light of the world and the city on the hill, they are visible to the world around them and their good works give glory to the God they serve.
One of the struggles that many Christians, myself included, wrestle with is the visible nature of their faith in a secular world. For people in the United States, faith has mainly been consigned to the private or spiritual realm, but it was never intended to be so. I know this is one of the things I struggle with as a private person and even as a pastor. As a pastor people do tend to watch my actions and words much closer than the average person of faith and I’m OK with that, but a salty, city on the hill, light of the world faith is much more visible than what I or my congregation often live. That type of faith will meet resistance and even persecution, and I’ve met that type of resistance in congregations I’ve served and from those in the community who disagreed with the hermeneutic of mercy that shapes my understanding of how we are to live our calling. I do struggle with the vanilla nature of the church as it actually exists, and while I’m not willing to embrace the model of some churches which pull away from society it is a challenge to continue to be salt and light in the midst of the world without being shuttered or made foolish. The Sermon on the Mount does not grant us a complete ethical system which can help us answer every question but it does, like all good wisdom literature and attempts to interpret scripture, point us toward the path of wisdom and help us begin to imagine what a life informed by the kingdom of heaven might look like.
The vocation of the hearers of the Sermon on the Mount relates to the vocation of the people of Israel. In being connected with the vocation of Israel the hearers are also connected with the scriptures of Israel. For Matthew it is critical for the reader to see the connection between Jesus and the scriptures, that is one of the reasons he continually alludes and quotes the scriptures to help us understand who Jesus is and what the vocation he calls us into looks like in the world. As we prepare to hear Jesus show us how to hear the scripture, we are not called to forget what came before but instead to hear and learn from it, to preserve and honor it, and to live lives that show forth a righteousness that is different from the scribes and Pharisees. Again we are framed with the question of wisdom literature in terms of the ones who breaks the commandments and teaches others (by words or actions) to do the same is the least while the one who keeps the commandments and teaches other to keep them is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. This keeping of scripture will be a visible witness which brings glory to God but may also bring persecution to the one living this public faith.
Before we move into hearing Jesus interpreting scripture a brief pause to frame the way Jesus will read scripture. This is often heard as legalistic or pointing towards a type of moralistic perfection and the interpretation below will run counter to this path. A helpful question when approaching either the law in the Hebrew Scriptures or Jesus’ interpretation of it in the Sermon on the Mount is: What type of community/society are they trying to create/imagine? That doesn’t mean that what lies ahead is easy to live into, I struggle with it, but it does give us a different horizon to hear the law within. The law is about a society where my neighbor’s best life is possible. One of the key differences between the scribes and the Pharisees as they are represented in Matthew’s gospel and Jesus is mercy being a central part to understanding what righteousness is about. As we now enter Jesus’ interpretation of the law and prophets which are connected to our vocation may we apply that merciful and, dare I say, gracious hermeneutic to our neighbors and to ourselves.