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)

 

Who is Matthew?

 

What do we know of Matthew? I am referring to the one who wrote “Matthew’s Gospel”, the initial contribution we find as we open our New Testament. He is to us what he allows us to know of him in this Gospel.

What can we ever know of another person? We have what they give to us of themselves, from out of their own life, their words and their deeds. It is a fragile as any inter-personal, inter-human communication.

There is a recorded saying of Jesus that Matthew gives us that may help us deepen our appreciation for how he views himself, and thus how he presents himself to us.

Jesus is recorded as having just finished telling some parables about the Kingdom of Heaven, about how God’s purposes for the Son of Man will be sorted (the wheat separated from the weeds) at the appointed time. Having affirmed that this will involve “weeping and gnashing of teeth”, Jesus turns to his disciples:

“Have you indeed understood all these things?” he asked, their reply being, “Yes, we have.” And to that reply he gave this further comment to them: “And so it is, then a teacher of the law becomes a student in the kingdom of heaven, he will resemble the master of a household who draws forth from his treasure, new things as well as old.” (Matthew 13:51-52).

It is, admittedly, an indirect clue as to how Matthew saw himself in the writing of this Gospel, but this Gospel is, in fact, the only source we now have for our knowledge of him. We have good reason to suppose that Matthew is the tax-collector whose part in the back-story of this Gospel began when Jesus called him as recorded in 9:9-13. We learn from Mark that his other name was Levi, son of Alphaeus, who then threw a party for Jesus (Mark 2:13-17). But Matthew’s account doesn’t tell us that; he simply indicates that this was the occasion by which Jesus gained a reputation from the Pharisees for consorting with undesirables, with tax-collectors and sinners.

These indications are similar circumstances to what we confront when we meet a person who is so concerned with what he is teaching that he turns our attention away from himself. By mentioning that Matthew the tax-collector followed Jesus, this account of the Good News may also be telling us of the impact of the ministry of John the Baptist (Luke 3:10-14) upon himself. Later on in this Gospel that teaching is confirmed when tax-collecting and tax-paying is affirmed in Jerusalem’s temple in dramatic fashion (22:15-22).

Matthew’s account of his adherence to Jesus comes after Jesus’ preparation, his 40-day trial in the wilderness, the account of the Sermon on the Mount. It suggests that what Jesus was busy with took place within John’s movement across the Galilean region. A repentant spirit had taken hold of many people. Jesus’ teaching even commended the faith of a Roman Centurion (8:5-13). This was something big.

In confronting the religious leaders, those claiming to hold the title deeds to Israel’s sacred traditions, this Teacher was certainly continuing the public critique of religious hypocrisy that John had initiated “You breed of snakes” (see 3:7 for John; 12:33 and 23:34 for Jesus). But more than that. Yes Jesus was busy in a self-disciplining way of life that not only gave strict formal assent to what the Law and the Prophets had announced concerning the works of the Lord’s Anointed. But he was also teaching in a way that relieved people’s anxieties about God’s love and favour toward them. He commended the faith of a Canaanite mother, in distress at her child’s chronic condition (15:21-28). He showed mercy to his hometown by revisiting there even though the people had previously tried to execute him and remained deeply resentful of his teaching and person (13:54-58 cf Luke 4:14-30 when his ministry was inaugurated).

Matthew’s Gospel is written as an account of a Divine visitation about which the author is in no doubt. He is the tax-collector who has become a student, an amanuensis, in the Kingdom of God, and this is his story of what is old and what is new. This is his attempt to give a cogent, palpable account, presumably for the people of Galilee who, having been stirred by God’s Spirit under the teaching of John, desperately clung to the teaching of “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” and who needed to know the Good News of Jesus’ Resurrection after his trial and crucifixion.

The visitation had taken place in the fields, and on the roads of Galilee, within its villages and towns, as this Rabbi disclosed his mission as the Son of Man.

John’s disciples were no doubt distraught and disoriented (11:2). This was evidence of basic injustice. His imprisonment must have raised questions for them. Some disciples he had re-directed to follow Jesus. But of the others, no doubt, some went to him pleading for his advice as to what they could do. And meanwhile, understandably, John is prone to doubts himself. Was not a fire of cleansing on the way? Was not that what he had proclaimed? (3:1-12) What is he to make of his own imprisonment? Has it all been a wonderful, heroic failure? Well, he tells his disciples, you better go and ask Jesus. Ask him. He’s the One in whom I have rested my hopes.

And Matthew the tax-collector, no doubt impressed by John’s invitation to tax-collectors to get ready for the Kingdom of Heaven breaking out in human history, is writing his Gospel to confirm his faith that John’s ministry in the desert was continued and fulfilled by Jesus and his works.

It was this service performed by Jesus in Galilee, this body of teaching of which Matthew had become the Kingdom-of-God scribe, that would assist all those who came to belief in Israel’s Messiah, who had come to trust that His work was completed in Jerusalem despite his betrayal, trial, the denial of his closest disciples, and death. That work with the stamp of approval from God raising him from the grave, completed and retained its meaningful character for the proclamation of forgiveness of sins in the Kingdom of Heaven – this is what Jesus’ resurrection and ascension announces. The disciples of Galilee needed to hear this Good News, they needed to hear again that the Kingdom of God had truly come and has been made known in their midst by the Person elected by God the Father to be their King.

And indeed Matthew is suggesting this is truly Good News directly for tax-collectors and tax-payers, for those employed in collecting taxes for Caesar or for that matter in any other lawful authority. This is because the Kingdom of God is a regime that not only invites and requires one’s opened-up civil and political efforts to proclaim, advocate and implement public justice, but can be utterly relied upon for every detail of one’s life, not just for the accountant’s office, or the bank ledger, or the tax office records, but of blessing to your household, your marriage, your children, your neighbourhood, school, hospital, marketplace … your taxes are due for the administration of your transport, rubbish collection, water supply, public health, security. Your love for God is called for because the God and Father of Jesus Christ who makes all this, and more, available, is your Maker, your Ruler, your King. These too are the avenues of his love to you and all the world.

Those who, upon hearing this “old, old story”, want so much to believe it because the story brings to mind how much they have stuffed up their lives and the lives of others. They have so often broken their own strict standards of conduct and become hypocrites in their own eyes, let alone anyone else’s. They feel guilty, “unclean”, in need of being put right, their lives straightened out. They know all too well that they can pretend to believe to show off their piety. These are those who, when it comes down to it, simply want to believe. To them Matthew’s Gospel seems to be saying, and also to us in the 21st century, something like the following:

Well don’t try to work out all that happened in Jerusalem, as if a full historical record is what you need. I have recounted that in the latter portions of my Gospel; and you can’t deepen your understanding by ignoring these accounts, brief though they be. But, faith in God, as Jesus taught it, is not some kind of self-imposed self-hypnosis – instead take what I have written there and look again at what is recorded of what Jesus taught from the outset, from John the Baptist, and get a sense of how he was alert to what the Law and the Prophets and the Psalms were saying about the Servant of the Lord (Isaiah 42 and Matthew 12:18-21) and the impending treatment that would be meted out to him.

Matthew’s Gospel, like that of Mark, and in contrast with Luke and John, seems to end so abruptly. But if we read Matthew’s account from the outset we may then get that sense that he is trying to suggest to us that the way to deal with this “religious conundrum” is to work backwards as it were from where you are now. For the Galileans who were still caught up with Jesus’ parables, poetry and teaching – the Sermon on the Mount in particular – it meant being instructed about how God’s purposes were fulfilled in what transpired when Jesus “went up” to Jerusalem. He had taught his disciples to help them understand his works, the works his Father was pleased to take and complete.

If we go to Matthew’s Gospel seeking to appreciate how the Christian Church was inaugurated by the fulfilment of the coming of the Spirit with wind and fire at Pentecost, we will note what John the Baptist proclaimed prior to Jesus’ baptism, and what Jesus said about the disciplined waiting of the apostles to receive the new life he had made available (Acts 1:4-5 and Matthew 3:11-17). Pentecost thus needs to be appreciated in terms of the apostles’ teaching of Jesus ascension to God’s right hand; and if with Jesus’ ascension to God’s right hand then we need to confront Jesus’ resurrection; and if with his resurrection then with his crucifixion; and if with his crucifixion then with his trial; and if with his trial, then how he was left on his own; and if his being left on his own then by his betrayal; and if by his betrayal by what he had continued to teach in the temple infuriating those who believed they owned Israel’s bequest of “religious capital”; and then by his teaching, the teaching he had first enunciated and developed when he began his ministry in Galilee after John was arrested. This is the literary flow that can be detected in the Gospel of Matthew, presumably Matthew the tax-collector, the follower of Jesus who came to see tax-collection as meaningful public action in the Kingdom of God.

BCW 18.6.17