Salt and Light

Matthew 5:13-20

Have you ever been talking with a friend, family member or work associate and had something important to say… but held back? Perhaps you were unsure of your position on an issue… or perhaps you were pretty sure about how you felt, but feared you’d be misinterpreted or even ridiculed if you spoke your mind. Perhaps you were afraid you’d be drawn deeper into a conversation or situation with which you were uncomfortable. Keeping silent is not always a bad thing: sometimes we realize in retrospect that we were flat out wrong on an issue… and are happy we kept our erroneous opinions to ourselves. How often, though, do we waste God-given opportunities to stand up for mercy, justice, love and covenant loyalty in our interactions with others? How often do we miss the chance to live into our Christian vocation of spreading the Good News of the Kingdom of God to a world in need of hope?

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). Where have you heard that before? Those are some of the first words spoken by Jesus as he began his ministry in Galilee. And these words seemed to get peoples’ attention, certainly that of Peter and Andrew… and James and John… who left behind their boats and nets and even their families to follow Jesus. And also that of the crowds who flocked to Jesus to hear his teachings and be healed. Jesus interpreted the Scriptures for them and helped them understand how the poor in spirit, the meek and the persecuted would find happiness and favor in the eyes of God. Jesus provided hope to the hopeless by offering them a vision of a celestial paradise inhabited by the “least of these,” who seemed destined to labor forever on earth under the cruel yoke of the rich and powerful.

“Salt and Light.” In Hebrew tradition, salt was associated with sacrifice and with covenant loyalty. Eating together was called “sharing salt” and connoted a binding relationship. Jesus’ message to his disciples was clear: YOU are the salt of the earth… YOU are the ones to spread the Good News of the Kingdom of God… not the scribes, not the Pharisees, not the established interpreters of Hebrew Law. And should the disciples fail in this purpose, the purpose for which they were intended from the beginning of time, they would become useless. Salt loses its saltiness not by any natural process, but by becoming so impure… so tainted by other elements that it loses its character and its function. For salt, not being salty is not an option.

Light, on the other hand, exists not only to be seen, but also to allow other things to be seen as they truly are. In referring to the disciples, metaphorically as light and as “a city on a hill,” Jesus is calling them not only to be seen as living good lives, but to extend righteousness, that is: mercy, justice, love and covenant loyalty to the least of these, in order to illumine the way to that heavenly citadel to which the nations will flow at the end of time (Isaiah 2:2-542:649:6). The disciples are not the source of the light any more than the salt generates its own saltiness. The disciples reflect the radiance and are seasoned with a flavor that comes from God. As present-day disciples, we are not challenged to try harder to be salt and light… but to understand that, as Christ followers, we ARE salt and light for the world. We are not called to exert ourselves to become more holy… but simply to heed Jesus’ call, and to accept and live out the new reality that discipleship has brought about in our lives. Piece of cake, right?

Jesus said he came not to abolish the law or the prophets… but to fulfill them. The whole of Scripture testifies to God’s will and work in the history of our world. But God’s work, as revealed in Scripture is not yet complete. The “new thing” that God is doing in the world, foretold by Isaiah (43:19), seven hundred years before, was being fulfilled in God’s Christ… God’s Messiah. Jesus tells his disciples, however, that his messianic fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision does not nullify the law and the prophets… but confirmsthem. Jesus’ words help us understand that “fulfillment” does not simply mean rote acceptance of the law as interpreted by the scribes and Pharisees… or religious fundamentalists of our own time, for that matter. Fulfillment means transcendence of the old way of thinking: “I’m doing a new thing,” says God. Later in Matthew’s gospel, in response to the Pharisees’ criticism of the disciples for breaking the law by plucking grain on the Sabbath because they were hungry, Jesus responded that, “Something greater than the temple is here . . . [God desires] mercy, not sacrifice   . . .” and “[in any case] the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8). Jesus sought not to abolish the Sabbath but to fulfill it.

Y’all may remember that there are 613 mitzvot, or commandments, in Hebrew law. Some are quite broad while others deal with minutiae, and in Chapter 22 of Matthew’s gospel we learn that all of these can be distilled into “love God, and love your neighbor” (vv. 34-40). Throughout Matthew’s testimony, Jesus is forever schooling his disciples (in no uncertain terms) that mercy, justice, love and covenant loyalty are the underlying principles of the Law, upon which all of the rest depends. When Jesus says that his own life and teaching are the definitive revelation of the will of God, he is saying that the Torah, whether written or interpreted orally by the scribes and Pharisees, is not the final authority. And in next week’s gospel lesson, Jesus will provide us with some compelling examples of precisely how this fulfillment might play out: not only is murder forbidden, but anyone who harbors anger against a sister or a brother is liable to judgment. Not only shall you not commit adultery, but you shan’t even think about it! Jesus had some particularly pointed things to say about divorce and the swearing of oaths that made the Hebrew law look positively permissive in this regard. Because it was. “An eye for an eye” becomes “turn the other cheek,” and the commandment to love one’s own kith and kin is extended to include one’s enemies and those who wish to do us harm. This is fulfillment.

So… when was the last time you held your tongue in favor of “the law” when one of the “least of these” was being put on public trial, either literally or figuratively? When was the last time you sat in silence when a brother or sister was being denigrated and judged for who they were? Perhaps she was trapped in the rut of chemical dependency. Perhaps he was an unemployed youth from the “other” side of town. Was it someone of a different political persuasion than your own? Or was it someone who worships God in a different way than you do? Have you ever missed the opportunity to speak up to a friend or acquaintance mired in depression and self-loathing, seeking a way to end the pain? Sometimes, by the time we get around to it, it’s too late. How many times have you thought to yourself, “Gee, I wish I’d said something!” None of us is innocent. Each of us can think of times we wish we had spoken up… to offer comfort and hope… to spread the Good News of the Kingdom to someone who needed it. But it’s not too late – you can start today. We are each made to be part of the “new thing” God is doing. We are each made to proclaim the Gospel. And here’s the thing: you don’t have to have all the answers. That’s God’s job. You can be scared, you can be confused, you can even be on the fence about what the details of “the law” require.

I’m reminded of the story of a good friend who had survived several years in a German concentration camp during World War II. Leszek was not a Jew. He was a Polish Catholic and, in fact, quite anti-Semitic. And yet, and yet… he put his life on the line during the early years of the war, helping smuggle Jews out of Poland, to save them from the Nazis. Leszek never bragged about his work to help save Jews, actually he was a bit crotchety about his contributions in that regard. “Why did I do it?” he might respond when asked. “They were God’s people, just like me, and they needed help. But I didn’t have to like them.” But he had to love them. And so, Leszek spent three and a half years at hard labor… behind a barbed wire fence… exemplifying sacrifice and demonstrating covenant loyalty to a people he really didn’t care for… and serving as “a light to the nations” during a period of great darkness… though I’m pretty sure he didn’t think of it in those terms at the time.

So don’t let the opportunity to spread the Good News of the Kingdom pass you by. Speak up! Christ has charged us to be the salt of the earth and a city on a hill, embodying the new covenant of mercy, justice, love and loyalty to our neighbors. How do we do that? We live into our Christian vocation by advocating for the least of these who live on the margins of “polite Christian society.” Brothers and sisters who stand in need of prayer and community. Jesus said, “In as much as you have done it for the least of these, you have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:45). So, it’s OK to be unsure of yourself. It’s OK to fear injury and alienation. And you may be drawn in over your head. But Jesus will be with you, giving you strength and courage to fight the good fight. And the good fight is love.

Mercy is love. Justice is love. Covenant loyalty is love. The whole of the law is love.

So, speak love.

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