“Salt, Light, and Love”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
13“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 under foot.
14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.16In 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.
17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For 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. 19Therefore, 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. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (NRSV)
Most scholars agree that Matthew wrote his version of the gospel in the years just prior to the destruction of the temple in 70CE. And he wrote specifically for the Jewish community. To understand Matthew’s purposes and approach, a reader needs to understand at least a little about the burdens that first-century Jews had carried for centuries.
When the exiles returned from Babylon in 516BCE, they found Jerusalem laboring under Persian rule. In the fourth century BCE, Alexander the Great conquered Judea. That led to a couple of centuries of Greek control. After more than four hundred years of repression, Jerusalem finally enjoyed an eighty-year run of relative autonomy under the Hasmoneans. Then, in 63BCE, Jerusalem fell to Rome.
For the Jewish community, this painful history produced a persistent existential stress that created tremendous tension among those who had been told that they were God’s chosen people. So, by Jesus’ day, the unmolested glory of which the prophets had spoken since the days of Abraham was real only in dreams and poetry.
Reflecting on today’s passage, Edwin Van Driel says that first-century Judaism lay awash in factions of competing opinions about how to live in relationship within the faith community and in relationship with Rome. The Sadducees opted for full cooperation. Survive by being good citizens of the realm. The Zealots, a rebel group, actively sought to take up weapons and fight Rome. The Pharisees were divided. Some sympathized with the Zealots, and others chose to sequester themselves in what Dr. Van Driel calls “the ghetto,” a Jewish sect in and around Jerusalem that tried to cut itself off from all outside influences and keep its Jewish identity as pure as possible.1 These divisions and competing loyalties defined the political/religious climate throughout the Jewish world.
Into this turmoil, Jesus shows up saying to all Jews, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who mourn…Blessed are the meek…the merciful…the peacemakers…[and] those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.”
“You,” says Jesus to the descendants of Abraham and David, “You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world.”
While salt may lose its saltiness, and light may be hidden, Jesus affirms that the people to whom he speaks, regardless of how spicy or bland, bright or dim they may feel, are salt and light. They have God-given gifts. They have a story of suffering and redemption, a sacramental community, and a love-driven hope. Israel is called to enrich all of Creation with these gifts. That is what it means to be chosen and blessed by God.
From reading and studying Jesus’ life and teachings, it seems clear to me that chosen-ness and blessedness have nothing to do with being individuals or nations that enjoy more health, wealth, and power than anyone else. Our own culture’s sense of entitlement to excess is a symptom of the theological fallacies of the prosperity gospel which preaches that worldly advantages prove God’s favor, and that one may justify virtually any means to ensure those so-called “blessings.” The problem with the prosperity gospel is that it simply cannot be harmonized with Jesus. From his Sermon on the Mount to all that follows, Jesus declares that the faith community’s proper relationship with political, economic, and social forces is one of loving and engaged prophecy. All too often the Church trades its prophetic relationship with the powers for one of symbiosis or laissez faire. All too often the Church sells its soul to the devil and climbs into bed with greed, vengeance, and violence.
But that’s just such a thoroughly human thing to do, isn’t it? It’s so human to want to feel secure in and of ourselves. That’s the very point of Jesus’ own temptation. Even he struggles with the seductions of acquiring and controlling. So, when he preaches his challenging gospel of grace, we can trust that he knows what he’s asking of us. He may not let up on us, but he is always understanding and forgiving because he knows how hard it is to follow him. Doesn’t he even say that it’s like taking up a Roman cross?
So, we can understand that when the Jewish people hear Jesus say that they are spiritual seasoning and illuminating hope for the world, he is complicating their already complicated life. They live in an environment in which politics and religion are all knotted up. According to Dr. Van Driel, here’s the fundamental issue: For the Jewish community, exile is not something of the past. Because it has lasted, in one way or another, for the last six hundred years, the people expect a military/political messiah.2 Indeed, few will be satisfied with anything less. They expect God’s kingdom to be a geopolitical reality, something they will have to achieve through great effort and at great cost. They expect another Moses, a charismatic leader who is faithful to the law, but this time one who is also brave, fierce, and victorious in battle.
The new Moses Matthew presents is an uncredentialled Galilean rabbi declaring that God’s kingdom is a completely different kind of reality. The kingdom of God, says Jesus, isn’t a state built on military might and political domination. It’s a real, here-and-now gift, something God is already doing. And as an alternative community-within-the-community, it is being, and has always been revealed through people whose love for God and neighbor shines boldly in a hurting world, people who season their surroundings with mercy for the poor, justice for the voiceless, kindness for the enemy, and forgiveness for all.
The teachings of Jesus do heal and redeem, but before they do that, they defy and disrupt. To Jews in the first century and Christians in the twenty-first century, Jesus is saying that God is doing a brand-new thing that requires an entirely new way of imagining God and of living faithfully as the people of God. At the same time, he affirms the law in its foundational simplicity—Love God. Love neighbor. To love as we are loved by God means to lay down our selfish fears and idolatries and to weigh every decision we make against the example of God’s love for us and for the Creation as that love is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. That is to fulfill every letter and every stroke of a letter of the law.
That is to live the life of blessedness,
…the life of salt and light.
…the life of ones whose “righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.”
…the life of grateful and generous inhabitants of God’s kingdom.
1Edwin Chr. Van Driel, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, pp. 333-337.
Comfort of a Creed
w/m Allen Huff
Adam went to church most every Sunday
To thank his lucky stars for God above,
God helps those who help themselves, he heard the preacher say.
Now let’s sing a song of happiness and love.
In the parking lot a ragged man approached him.
Can you spare a buck for a piece of bread?
Adam stared right past the man disgusted.
I’ve got no change, so I’ll pray for you instead.
Oh, but all of us are hungry until all of us are fed.
Love is more than thoughts and prayers; it’s everything we share.
And compassion is the greatest gift to neighbor and to self.
We’re all in this together; if we share heaven, we share hell.
That night within a dream a thin hand beckoned,
Hollow eyes searched only to be seen.
To the sound of his own groaning Adam wakened.
In ceaseless tears he poured out all his grief.
He killed the fatted calf for familiar faces,
He gave to those deserving of a gift.
But when came the beggar dirty or the wino wasted,
He closed his heart and mind and clinched his fist. (Chorus)
In the morning at the mirror, Adam looked into his face.
He saw hunger in his own eyes and loneliness in his gaze.
He knew he’d starved himself when he denied his neighbor’s need,
And traded true religion for the comfort of a creed. (Chorus)