Christian Identity: Salt and Light

The Sermon on the Mount is regularly cited, as it should be, when discussion gets around to explaining the distinctiveness of the Christian “way of life”. And that is all about discipleship, the wholehearted following of Jesus Christ. The Beatitudes are also well-known. What is perhaps not so readily appreciated is the manner in which Matthew has constructed his Gospel and the significance of chapters 5 to 7 in his entire narrative. The Beatitudes, at the beginning of Matthews account of what is called “the sermon”, seem to be a litany, seemingly composed by Jesus. Could it not have been sung as a communal psalm before the day’s teaching commenced? Moreover, we should note that the first and eighth Beatitudes:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit …” and “Blessed are the ones persecuted for the sake of righteousness…”

confirm that Jesus is teaching “the gospel of the kingdom” (4:17, 23), the work he had taken up in earnest after the arrest of John the Baptist (4:12). Both Beatitudes have the same antiphon:

… for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.

So this was a time just after Jesus had decamped from Nazareth to Capernaum. The implication seems to be that Matthew is collecting together Jesus’ teaching that he delivered to these repentant Galilean disciples of John who, en masse (4:23-25), stood in need of his pastoral care, his health-care ministry and teaching. And despite John’s arrest, they went out in their crowds to hear him. Now that is also to be kept in mind as we read and appreciate the Sermon on the Mount and especially the well-known statement by which Jesus defines the identity of those inheriting the Kingdom of God. Before we get to      Matthew 5:13-16, however, we read this conclusion to the Beatitudes:

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Now this is what comes before Matthew 5:13-16

You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

Read in this way, we hear Jesus prophetically telling his disciples (5:1) that they are to be profoundly glad when they are persecuted for their “Kingdom of Heaven” way of life. Just as the way of life of Israel in the times of the prophets could not bear a whole-hearted obedience to the way of the Lord, so now Jesus tells his those who have come to him for teaching that they are to rejoice when their distinctive life-style brings about a reaction from the powers that be.

This is a statement that is reiterated and deepened later on when Jesus commissions the twelve apostles.

Beware of people; for they will deliver you up to [their] councils, and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before Governors and Kings for my sake to bear testimony before them and the nations… (Matthew 10:17-18).

This Kingdom of Heaven “way of life” came on the scene in a situation which was by no means cut and dried for Jesus’ disciples. In the subsequent chapters of the New Testament we see just how difficult it was. The Romans, with their military control of the Mediterranean world had Israel well and truly in their grip. The religious elite of Israel at the time had so bound up the life of God’s covenanted people that all that was left was a dead orthodoxy confined to maintaining the purity of religious observances and the practises of everyday rituals.

Jesus came to Galilee in a situation in which the Kingdom of Heaven “way of life” was in need of being rediscovered. The prevailing way of life, we might say, was indeed like salt that had lost its savour.

It is in this context that Jesus addresses his disciples:

You are the salt of the earth …

You are the light of the world …

Here he teaches in the context of a way of life that takes for granted a thoroughly divided loyalty. Instead of a life that is committed to balancing these two prevailing authorities – the Roman Governor and the Chief Priests of the Temple – in order to construct a coherent way of life, Jesus begins his teaching of his disciples by defining them in an altogether new and different way.

He tells them of their life in this world, even if they do not derive their identity from the world – in the world but not of the world. He emphasizes how they are salt of the earth. He tells them that they have much to give to the world because they are the light of the world.

This little word “of” makes all the difference here to Jesus’ meaning.

Salt has no effect, has no meaning, it’s properties are not expressed, when it is not in something

Salt has effect, has meaning, it’s properties are expressed, only when it is in something. Yet by being in it is still salt. It does not become what it is in.

This 7 word teaching of Jesus – “You (pl) are the salt of the earth” packs a punch. It requires us to reflect. The followers of the Kingdom of Heaven “way” have no effect, have no meaning, their character remains unexpressed if it is not in relation to the world, in relation to the whole of created reality. What we are has to come to expression in all of our life.

The point about salt, says Jesus, is its taste – if it has lost its taste – you need to taste salt to know that it is salt – then we know full well that is no longer good for anything. You can add it to your soup but if the salt has become tasteless your soup will not be salted.

And similarly, light by shining upon objects is not generated from the objects but comes to expression as the objects are seen.

Once again the “expression” of light, as with the “expression” of salt, is unbreakably related to the way these are created. The shining cannot be severed from the lamp in the same way that saltiness cannot be.tasted without salt.

We might as well say that salt, if it has lost its taste is no longer salt. It isn’t good for anything. It can only be thrown out and trodden under foot by men. It is useless, thrown out, discarded, treated with contempt, trampled upon with indignity.

And Jesus says to his disciples:

You are the salt of the earth.

In the way salt expresses itself in its saltiness – one needs to be able to taste it. Salt makes whatever it is in salty. Whatever it is in has to be tasted. This then is the situation, as Jesus describes it, for his disciples.

Remember the context of Matthew’s poetic report here:

You, the salt of the earth, are now in a situation where, because you have been prepared by John and now I am teaching you, you can give expression to your membership in my Body, your citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven; you can give expression to the comfort you have received by giving comfort; you can give expression to what you have inherited of the earth by sharing it around; you can show justice by ensuring that all your neighbours have access to the love that God has shown to you by treating them with righteousness. You are in the world, in a particular relationship to the world that I have set up for you. And since you gain your identity from being the salt of the earth you will simply have to live with the possibility that people can gain a taste for the Kingdom of Heaven “way of life”.

So if “salt” is how the disciples of Jesus should reckon with their relationship to the world, from where do they exercise their influence? And further, what is the extent of their influence?

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.

Again Jesus uses the word “You” in the plural sense, meaning “all of you together”. This is not an address to individuals, but to a gathering of disciples who are assumed to be related to each other, assumed to be members one of another. The “You” is plural, and there are three domains in which this light shines – the world; a city; a house.

The whole of created reality, the entire cosmos, is to receive the light of Jesus’ disciples. Here Jesus speaks of the exalted place that is assigned to the followers of  Jesus. He says they are the world’s light. This is a stupendous announcement.

He also says that his disciples are “a city”, strategically placed so that it is impossible for it to be concealed. The followers of Jesus simply cannot go unnoticed because they have been placed strategically by the one who has planned that city. It is God’s city that Jesus is talking about here; this is the Kingdom of Heaven.

And it is just not done to light a lamp and then conceal it under a table. It is a lamp. It’s task is to shine, not in some restricted sense, not in some special corner that hogs the light to itself, but it shines for the whole house, to all that are in the house.

Summing up, therefore, we could say that Jesus teaching sets forth his expectations about the identity of his disciples, those following his teaching, those committed to loyal service as citizens in the Kingdom of Heaven.

The life Jesus’ followers are to live is not some mystery cult; this is no secret code, hived off in privatised isolation. It is to be open; it is to be public; it is to embrace the whole of life. It is to be lived to the whole earth, the entire cosmos.

This life is to be lived before people, in their sight, right in their view, up close, so close that they can taste it. It is to be positively acted out in full view.

And so we recall that the followers of Jesus were indeed dragged before Governors, Councils and Kings to account for their way of life. They were not subject to some vague metaphysical principle or entity. They were not selling some abstract philosophical system. They were not the purveyors of a legalistic doctrine nor did they try to make one part of created reality throw light upon the rest. They took Jesus at his word and knew that he had told them they were the light of the world, and had thus commanded them to let their light shine even upon Emperors, Military Rulers and religious officials.

By listening to Jesus’ word they know that Jesus foresaw the problems others would have in coming to terms with those following him; they would know who they are by heeding his teaching. They did not have to create themselves; they had been placed strategically, in the open. So they are called to a life of open thankfulness. Their heavenly Father is busy with them and therefore their service cannot be kept secret.

Like a lamp, your light must shine bright in the faces of people so that they may see and recognize the good things you are doing and then they may give the praise to your Father in heaven.


May 1972 (rewrite 3 July 2017)