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 underfoot.
‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 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. 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.
‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. 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. 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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Paul, when writing to the Christians in Corinth says that he didn’t come using ‘lofty words’. These words we hear Jesus using this morning are not lofty words: instead they’re down to earth words, down to earth images, salt and light, which convey, as Paul went on to describe it, “God’s wisdom, secret and hidden’ but now made known.”
“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says to his disciples. That’s a commonplace statement today isn’t it? “So-and-so is the salt of the earth”, we say. But I’m guessing most of us haven’t paid much attention to where that idea comes from and to me it seems an odd phrase. “Salt of the earth? Why is someone the salt of the earth? How is someone the salt of the earth? What does it mean, particularly at a time when health-conscious people are advised to avoid salt? We live in a culture – certainly in the West – where salt is seen as rather a bad thing: high blood pressure, strokes, heart-attacks etc. Nevertheless we instinctively know that when we describe someone as the salt of the earth we mean that he or she is a simple, down-to-earth, good person – someone dependable, approachable, reliable, and responsible: someone we can trust.
We need to dig a bit and, as twenty first century people, come to an understanding of some of the realities of the first century.
The Old Testament speaks of 'covenant of salt': in the book of Numbers we read, "All the holy offerings that the Israelites present to the LORD I have given to you, together with your sons and daughters, as a perpetual due; it is a covenant of salt forever before the LORD for you and your descendants as well". 'Covenant of salt' means a permanent relationship; eating salt with someone meant to be bound in loyalty. So there’s a significance that is lost to us today but might help us to understand what Jesus was driving at. The people of God, then as now, were, by agreement, in a relationship of loyalty.
In Jesus’ day, the primary use for salt was as a preservative as there was no refrigeration. People used salt to prevent food, especially meats, from spoiling. No doubt people also used salt as we use it, to enhance flavours and to add zest to our food but another thing about salt is that it gives us a thirst. In the time of Jesus, salt was not purified in the way that we know but was collected from deposits left by the Dead Sea as it dried. This salt was exposed to the elements and could break apart and lose its flavour. In that respect salt is a very appropriate metaphor for discipleship, which can and does lose its vigour over time if care is not taken to keep it alive.
Is there a message for us there?
In the same way, Jesus says that his followers are to be a light in the world. No one can hide a city set on a hill, and no one lights a lamp and places it under a basket: that, too, would be foolish – trying to hide a city on a hill, or hiding a light makes no sense at all. Jesus’ friends are to let their light shine out in the world, so that everyone will see that light and glorify God. Why? Because the light is revealing God through the actions of his followers who are lighting the dark places and practices of our societies and working to bring God’s Kingdom closer.
I find these analogies of discipleship a real challenge because they talk of a distinctiveness about Christians and the Christian way of life that I don’t really see very much of in our society, and I include myself in that analysis. The saltiness and the light are there in us to make a difference: certainly a personal difference in the people we are: our attitudes and behaviours; our spirituality and so on, but we are also to make a difference to those around us by the very fact of our being who and what we are: disciples.
You can’t hide a city on a hill.
Are we that visible as Christian witnesses to those around us? Are we really? I mentioned before about one of the qualities of salt being that it encourages thirst. Do we behave as if we are thirsting for what God wants for us and the societies we live in, or do we behave as if we are full? Full to our own satisfaction rather than God’s?
By our deeds, we who call ourselves disciples are to influence the world for good. We should no more escape notice than a city set on a mountain. If we fail in our discipleship, we are as useless as flavourless salt or as a lamp whose light is concealed. By inviting us to be “light,” Jesus invites us to make him present in the world.
The God we know is passionate about justice; the God we know is passionate about truth – it was a passion that took him to the cross, it’s a passion that the Holy Spirit fires up within us, it’s a passion that sends us to the world and to the church with the message that things should be different. How can we be quiet when we’re so passionate? How can we be quiet when there’s so much injustice around, how can we stop saying things until people hear, really hear, and are challenged to change as a consequence?
Being salt means that we bring out the true taste of what it means to be a Christian – that’s the taste of justice and righteousness, living in God’s way. If we lose that then we lose our savour, we lose who we are and we’re good for nothing.
Bland. Food without salt is bland. Are we bland Christians?
Being light means that we’re a beacon in the church, not just locally, but nationally and internationally as well. We radiate Christ’s light, divine light and that searching light shows up not just where individuals have to change, but where the church has to change and where society has to change.
Are we up for that?
And what does it mean in practice?
We live in interesting times: BREXIT; President Trump; politicians on both sides of the Atlantic not knowing the law and seeking to undermine it; arms sales to some of the most despotic regimes around; a growing tide of racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia fuelled by hate filled newspapers and the phenomenon of fake news and alternative facts; social inequality on the up for the first time in a generation with zero hours contracts - to name just a few nasty current issues. At the same time it seems to me that the sort of people that are disproportionately affected by these issues are the very people Jesus was talking about where we picked up this morning: the poor in spirit; the meek; the persecuted and the reviled.
Being a light surely means revealing these dark places and practices, otherwise what is our light as disciples for? Are our voices being heard? If not, why not? Are we speaking out? Are we being a prophetic voice to others over the issues of our age?
The German Theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life was shaped by the conviction that the church is only truly the church when it lives for all God’s children in the world and that Christians fulfil their faith as Christians only when they live for others, and he called on Christians to “speak out for those who cannot speak”. When we realise that he said this in 1934, in the midst of deeply troubling times in Germany, it should make those of us who also live in deeply troubling times pause for thought, because he went on to say that the church has, “an unconditional obligation towards the victims in society even if they don’t belong to the Christian community.”
Is that us? Because it seems to me that that’s exactly what being salt and light means in practice: because Jesus described the downtrodden and marginalised as blessed in The Beatitudes, isn’t a free pass to inaction on their behalf for the rest of us. That, I think, is implicit in the reference from the book of Numbers I mentioned earlier: “ … a covenant of salt forever before the LORD for you and your descendants as well”. A covenant is an agreement. What’s our side of the agreement then? We know what God has done for us. What does he require of us in return?
When I was much younger, there used to be a question that regularly circulated like a spiritual checklist, it asked: if you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? I do sometimes wonder whether we are in danger of going with the flow to the extent that we have become the very type of bland, saltless Christians that Jesus warned about.
We are in a covenant with God. What does God require of us in return? The prophet Micah gave us an answer that encompasses our dealing both with God and with our neighbours, “ … To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Perhaps our prayer as we approach the season of Lent should be to ask God to help us to look at our society and it’s marginalised and downtrodden, those who Jesus called blessed, and while we seek to walk humbly with God, to ask that we do indeed act justly and love mercy in our dealings with them: not in a passive, but in an active way as advocates for them.