Last week, we considered the beatitudes. One commentary suggested the beatitudes function as the preamble to the constitution that is the Sermon on the Mount (Thomas G. Long, Matthew in Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997) 46)—the preamble to the constitution of a new world, we suggested last week—a new way of being—an alternate way of being. And following this preamble, Jesus gives us two metaphors: “You are salt,” he says, and, “You are light.” And while we tend to separate the beatitudes from our text today, it all goes together. The beatitudes, after all, are blessings offered to these and those, but finally, you remember, to “you” when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. So the Sermon on the Mount begins with three “you are” sections. Blessed are you. You are salt. And you are light.
So our first question has to be who are you? And it’s not as self-evident as you might think. We know we’re not talking about an individual—about individuals. We know this is a plural you (a “y’all” in colloquial southern). We know there are the disciples Jesus is teaching—at least the four of them (only four) that have been called so far in Matthew (Matthew 4:18-22; cf. 9:9, 10:1-4). There’s also the crowd we will realize followed him up the mountain when we read that they’re all there at the end of his teaching (Matthew 7:28). There is, of course, Matthew’s congregation, listening in. Then all the readers, hearers, and believers through the centuries up to and including the hearers and disciples gathered in this room this morning. Who are you—y’all?
There are some who would qualify whom Jesus addresses. Blessed are y’all when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account, remember? So, some would say, Jesus is addressing disciples here—the original four, and then, through the ages, but not the crowds. I think that’s probably the taken for granted hearing of these metaphors. We apply them to disciples or believers—Christians. It’s the church that’s salt and light. We’re not talking about everyone.
Or are we? Reading through the beatitudes: blessed are those who are thus …. blessed are the— whatevers. All qualified blessings. And then we get to that last beatitude, blessed are you—y’all (plural, collective)—heard by everyone on that mountain, heard by all readers and hearers through time—blessed are you all when (now we get a qualifying adverbial phrase) blessed are you all when people revile you and persecute you …. you get it? The “you”—the “y’all” includes everyone. It’s the subsequent adverbial phrase that limits or qualifies that universal you. So when we get to our metaphors: you are salt, you are light … the grammatical antecedent suggests we should really hear everyone being addressed. These are metaphors applied without any qualification—without any limitations. Now why is that important? Why is that so very, very important?
Because it makes of these metaphors an original blessing kind of thing. It’s a you-are-all-blessed-as-you-were-created-to-be kind of thing. A you-are-all-blessed-as-those-created-in-the-image-of-God affirmation. We are created “salty.” We are created “lit.” So the beginning of this sermon goes from blessing some—blessing a particular some—to blessing all—blessing everyone.
Okay. A few quick thoughts on salt and light. Salt first. What’s salt good for? Obviously for adding a savory richness to taste—for seasoning—for flavor (Job 6:6; Colossians 4:5). It’s used to preserve food. It was to be used as a part of every sacrifice—added to whatever was sacrificed (Leviticus 2:13; Ezekiel 43:24). It was used as a symbol of loyalty (Ezra 4:14; Numbers 18:19)—used to purify (2 Kings 2:19-22)—also used as a symbol of death and defeat—sown over a defeated razed city (Judges 9:45).
And let’s not forget that the salt metaphor is followed by the sobering reminder: if salt has lost its taste, it is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. Chemically, salt can’t lose its flavor—its essence, so “[s]alt loses its saltiness not by some impossible chemical miracle, but by becoming so impure, so mixed with other elements that it loses its function ….” (M. Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume VIII (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995) 181) And get this, the phrase translated “no longer good for anything” would literally be translated as “foolish”! (Robert A. Guelich, The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding (Waco: Word, 1982) 121) Salt mixed with other elements is foolish.
Ever occurred to you (little digression here)? I was struck by the thought that impure salt is tossed and trampled underfoot—becoming, literally, salt of the earth—trampled underfoot! Little Matthean humor here. This is obviously not meant to be taken literally!
Now for some quick thoughts on light. You are the light of the world. And it’s really not that light’s just inherently good. I think we sometimes think that, but God didn’t create light and bless it in and of itself. Light and darkness were both blessed as part of the cycle of day and night. So it’s the function of light we look at here—that which allows people to see what’s there. Light illuminates reality.
The salt metaphor was followed by a warning about salt that loses its flavor. The light metaphor is followed by the assertion that a city built on a hill cannot be hid. And some read that as a new and separate metaphor. You are the light of the world. You are a city on a hill. I’m not so sure that’s what Matthew’s doing here. It’s interesting. Those are actually two metaphors (light and a city on a hill) that Isaiah used for Israel—for Jerusalem (see Isaiah 2:2-5; Isaiah 42:5-7; Isaiah 49:5-6), and Matthew applies them—again, not to the disciples, I’d suggest—not to the church, but to everyone. So the resonance of two metaphors is there, but he’s been saying explicitly “you are” … you all are salt. You all are light. And then along comes this flat statement of fact: a city built on a hill cannot be hid. So I wonder if the city on the hill isn’t part of the light metaphor instead of a new one. I wonder if we’re supposed to think about all the light in a city on a hill at night, and there’s just too much light to hide. Because life is light. Fires for cooking and for warmth and for storytelling. Light for to see, around which to dance, with which to sacrifice.
You are the light of a city. You allow people to see what’s there. To see what’s real. Because, think with me here: a city can be hidden. Extinguish all the light of a city on a hill at night and what do you see? Nothing. At least until the sun comes up. And Matthew has Jesus go on to name the absurdity—the utter absurdity—of lighting a lamp and putting it under a bushel. That would just be foolish, wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t make any kind of sense. Precisely. Just like trying to hide a city on a hill. How … foolish an idea. When the sun comes up, won’t it all be so obvious what’s real—what’s true?
Alright, now we put all this together. Remember that original blessing kind of thing? You are all blessed as those created in the image of God? Now we know you can mess that up. You can get mixed up with what you shouldn’t and lose your essential flavor. You can hide your light. You can, in other words, undo or limit the effect of your essential being, but you are still, essentially, salt and light. So it’s presented as something rather foolish, but you don’t have to be who you were created to be. We are created “salty.” Our challenge is thus not to become salty, but to stay salty (Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary: The Christbook: Matthew 1-12: Revised & Expanded Edition (Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 1990) 189). We are created “lit.” Our challenge is to let our light shine. God created us all to be what only a few will fulfill.
Matthew and Jesus identify us with these transforming, illuminating agents that in no way represent any kind of moral majority, right? Rather a salty minority! You know what happens if your salty minority becomes a salty majority on your scrambled eggs, right? You throw it all out and trample it underfoot because it leaves such an awful taste in your mouth! Similarly, the light shines in the darkness. Matthew offers us the irony that the salty minority is all that’s left of how we were all created to be. And again, I’m not willing to limit salt and light to Jews or to Christians. Jesus is simply talking here about those who are as God created them to be—which makes discipleship less the way of being who we were created to be as the way for people of faith to be who they were created to be. God created us all to be what only a few will fulfill.
Jesus concludes: “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.” “You’ve really gotten things twisted around,” he says. “You think your living is to succeed at this or to accumulate that—to have people like you or to gain their respect—to have them admire you. But you were created to illuminate God—to shine into the very heart of what’s most real so that those who see you would give glory to God—not to success—not to wealth—not to immediate gratification—the indulgence of every whim—not to brains or good looks—not to fame—not to power.” And do you hear these words echoing so very loudly into our culture—the very antithesis of these words? Our culture really needs some salt. As proud as we are of our accomplishments, our opportunities, our freedoms—of all there is to see and hear, to have and do, we’re all too bland. As much as we think of ourselves as a role model for the world (we do, don’t we?), we’re dark with the lack of true life and light. We in the church need to say this because we as a country don’t seem to be able to admit it. We need to be lifted up to a higher destiny.
Then we have another transition into Jesus talking about the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. And, again, we tend to separate that from the metaphors which we separate from the beatitudes. And again, I’d like to suggest, we do the carefulness with which Jesus/Matthew put this sermon together a disservice. Because there’s something here about the consistency of God in time—the consistency of God in history. As long as there is creation, there will be the consistency of God invested in creation—working in times and places. God created us as salt and as light. God’s presence with us in history—God’s revelation in teaching and commandment continues to salt our living and illuminate truth. God created us all to be what only a few will fulfill.
Then it gets a little confusing. Jesus speaks of whoever breaks the least of these commandments. Well, isn’t Jesus going to do that? Is he not talking about the Old Testament commandments, but his own? And is he establishing some kind of rank in heaven? Least in the kingdom of heaven vs/ greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And what about those who will never enter the kingdom of heaven?
Maybe we’re to take from this that the commandments represent not just the means to an end but also the illumination of that end—and illuminate less how to attain as what we want to attain—less how we’re going to get somewhere as where we want to get.
So we hear Jesus saying, “It’s no different now that I’m here. It’s the same reality addressed by the law and the prophets. You just can’t live it. You can’t live into it on your own. You get too caught up in your assumptions and presuppositions, your wants—your perceived needs. Your righteousness would have to exceed that of the most righteous. There’s something about how you live in the world that makes it impossible for you to see truth—to see ultimate reality and to live into another world. So I’ve come to fulfill that truth—to live into and guide you into that reality—to help you live there.”
She was, by the way right, wasn’t she? Diana Butler Bass. I quoted her last week. She wrote: “We already know what form the analysis of the assassination attempt [of Representative Giffords] will be. Everyone will say what a tragedy it is. Then commentators will take sides. Those on the left will blame the Tea Party’s violent rhetoric and ‘Second Amendment solutions.’ Those on the right will blame irresponsible individuals and Socialism. Progressives will call for more gun control; conservatives will say more people should carry guns. Everyone will have some sort of spin that benefits their party, their platform, and their policies.” (http://blog.beliefnet.com/christianityfortherestofus/2011/01/congresswoman-gabrielle-giffords-speaking-for-the-soul.html#ixzz1AV0Kda7z) And that’s what we’ve seen and heard this past week, and it makes me sick.
But it’s just people living into the reality they know. And we must find the strength to say it’s not the most real one. It’s time to stop furthering the foolish illusion that what we take for granted is what’s real. But we just can’t do it, can we? Can’t do it on our own. We get too caught up in our assumptions and presuppositions, our wants—our perceived needs—our perception of reality. We really need some salt. We’re all too bland. Dark with the lack of true life and light. God created us all to be what only a few will fulfill, and we need God—we always need God—to salt our living and illuminate truth.
I gave you questions to reflect on last week. Here are our questions to consider this week. What was salt good for? For adding a savory richness to taste so people take a bite and exclaim, “It’s so much better this way.” Do we do that? Do we make life better—richer—tastier? Salt preserves what we need to eat to survive. Do we do that? Preserve what truly nourishes us? Salt purifies. Do we do that? Take what is distorted and perverted and purify it? Salt was used as a symbol of defeat. Do we name the defeat of what should not be and sow salt over it so it won’t grow back? Do we do all that?
And what’s light for? Illuminating a reality. Well what reality do we illuminate as followers in the way of Jesus? Do you illuminate the reality in which you live? Or the one into which you seek to live? What’s most real to you? Or, and you need to worry if the answer to this one’s different, what do people know to be real in you?
It’s time, you see. Time for the people of God to more intently—more intentionally illuminate the reality of God’s creation—not the reality we have made of that creation. It’s time to claim there is a city on this hill that can’t be hidden. There’s a reality too strong and too good to deny—a dream bigger than the ones for which we settle. Not the reality—not the dreams that define our cultures—in which there is too little life—too little light. It’s time to be more bold in asserting the emperor doesn’t have any clothes on. Naked ambition and greed run rampant through our culture—the pursuit of acquisitions and power. That’s not life. That’s not light. That’s not real. That’s foolish.
You see what Matthew’s Jesus is doing here? He’s setting us up. Setting us up for the movement from blessing to teaching. Setting us up for the coming shift in priorities. Setting us up to want to know what to do. Don’t you want to know? To know how to stay salty? How to illuminate what’s most real? Well stay tuned. But it simply has to do with how God created us to be. It simply has to be with how God has been with us through all time. It simply has to do with who God is. Simply has to do with who we are. Who are you? It also, of course, simply has to do with who we’re not.
And so I have a refrain for you this week—a refrain that will be, I suspect, mainly one of negation in service of a greater affirmation. Because I want you to assess what is, and then decide, is it truly, or is this not what is—not what is most true—most real. I want you to read the news—listen to the news—thinking mainly, I suspect, this is not how we are supposed to be. I want you to watch life as it unfolds in our society thinking mainly, I suspect, this is not how we are supposed to be. And I want you to pray, throughout this coming week, “This is not the world into which I want to live. This is not the truth to which I want to give myself. I choose God.” God created us all to be what only a few will fulfill. I want to fulfill. God help me, I want to fulfill. I want something—a truth—a reality—bigger than me—bigger than us—as big as God.