Flavorful and Bright

Matthew 5:13-20
Ordinary Time
Elizabeth M. Deibert

Prayer: Guide us, O God, by your Word and Spirit, that in your light we may see light,in your truth find freedom, and in your will discover your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

For two weeks, the Packers and the Steelers have been running plays, analyzing the other team via video, sorting through strengths and weaknesses and preparing a strategy to win the biggest game of the year. They tried to eat well and rest well, and today, the two coaches will do all in their power to inspire the team with words about who they are. We will make them play our game. We can do this! Locker room pep talks – who are we, what will we do, and how will we do it.

The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ pep talk with the disciples. We read the opening words last week, the Beatitudes, which encourage the disciples not to get discouraged. They might be suffering. They might be persecuted, but they are going to win the game of life, according to Jesus. They will be blessed. They will rejoice. They will have the trophy of eternal life.

And in our reading today, Jesus declares them to be salt of the earth and light of the world. Now remember that in the Gospel of John, Jesus is the light of the world. But here in Matthew, Jesus tells the disciples that they are the light of the world.

The task of bringing flavor to the world was not a new one for Israel. Often they were reminded to preserve their offerings with salt and that their children were the salt of the covenant, as is preserving the covenant. As for light, they had long regarded God as the source of light – Psalm 27 – You are my light and my salvation. And Psalm 119: Your word is lamp to my feet and a light to my path. Isaiah spoke of the Servant of Yahweh, who was to be a light to the nations through redemptive servanthood (Is. 42:6: 49:6). Paul mentions in Romans 2, the notion that God’s people are a light to those in darkness. In Philippians 2he challenges them to shine like starts.

Let us hear what the Spirit is saying to her church:

Matthew 5:13-20

"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.

Salt -- In rabbinic language, salt connoted wisdom and value. Today, salt adds flavor to food, cures food, creates traction on icy roads, and can serve as an antiseptic in wounds. While salt is an inexpensive commodity now, it was considered very valuable until the mid 19th century. Without it, meats and fish would spoil, and infections would worsen. Salt is part of our blood chemistry to regulate our retention of fluid.

14 "You are the light of the world.
A city built on a hill cannot be hid.
15 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.
16 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.

Light -- Jesus' listeners, living in the context of Roman domination, would probably have known that Rome saw itself as a "light to the world." Jesus' message to the disciples is that living by the Beatitudes is a light to the world, not living by an imperial domination system of Rome. The disciples are to take on the mission of the Servant of Yahweh from Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6, to be a light to the nations. The statement that they are to give light to all in the house is probably, for Matthew, a reference to the reformation of Judaism from within.

17 "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets;
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
18 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.
19 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.
20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness
exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees,
you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

"You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world." This word you is emphatic in both verses. The intent may be to contrast these Christians with their counterparts in the synagogue down the street. There is an implied imperative in both indicative statements. "Be salt. Be light. Be who you already have been called to be and are capable, by the power of God, of being in and for the world."

To be light is to participate in the identity of Christ, to reflect back his glory. While the rabbis saw Torah as mediator of God's light, Christians ascribed this role to Jesus. "I am the light of the world" (Jn. 8:12). Paul affirmed that he glimpsed the "light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Cor. 4:6) as we will affirm in our call to discipleship later in the service. It is a waste of precious oil to light a lamp and then immediately to douse it, quickly putting it under a basket.

When Jesus tells his disciples to "be salt," he is drawing on a number of Old Testament uses for salt -- seasoning, preservation, and purifying (2 Kg. 2:19-22). It was used to ratify covenants (Num. 18:29; 2 Chr. 13:5) and in liturgical functions (Ex. 30:35; Lev. 2:13; Ezek. 43:24; Ezra 6:9). To eat salt with someone signified a bond of friendship and loyalty (Ezra 4:14; Acts 1:4). Salt scattered on a conquered city reinforced its devastation (Jg. 9:45). Lot’s wife turned to a pillar of salt because she disobeyed and looked back as God’s holy fire was purifying Sodom and Gomorrah. Definitely saw too much of God and became too much salt.

Scholars have puzzled over whether salt can lose it flavor. Since salt is a very stable, non-reactive compound, the only way it can lose its flavor is by being diluted with water. Maybe coming coming on the heels of Jesus' exhortation to rejoice when persecuted in the Beattitudes, this is a warning to the disciples not to let their ardor (their spiciness) dissipate under the pressures of persecution. The word for "Lose its flavor" can also be rendered "become foolish." There may be a sense that if the disciples allow their wisdom (salt) to be diluted by the values of the surrounding culture, it will be indistinguishable from them and therefore worthless. Its ability to season, preserve, and purify will be lost.

Is it not interesting that the phrase "salt of the earth" has become a way of saying "really good person." When we say, they are the "salt of the earth," we mean they have good values and are people of integrity. But when Jesus hands us our receipt and says, "Go be salt," he means something much more specific and sacrificial.

Salt and Light for the Whole World. Jesus' teachings in the Sermon are directed far beyond the narrow circle of the disciples themselves. We are to be salt and light for the whole world, not just a shaker of salt in the center of the kitchen table. Not just keeping the lease paid and the church popcorn at Movie Night flavorful, but going out from here to sprinkle salt here and there. Now if you dump too much salt in one spot, you get a bad taste. Think of the evangelist who knocks on your door and wants you to get saved right then and there, in just the way he thinks you should be saved. Dumping salt. But a kind conversation here and there with the neighbor with an occasional invitation to participate in a church activity – that’s spreading salt in the world. These verses are intimately connected to the end of Matthew, the Great Commission. They are calling us, Peace, to be flavorful and spicy enough to create some interest, and to be light for people overwhelmed by darkness.

Salt and Light Give Glory to God, Not Ourselves. The goal of being salt and light is to give glory to "your Father in heaven" (see 5:17, 6:9, 11:25). These two metaphors are perfect for depicting a ministry that points beyond itself to God. Salt shouldn't call attention to itself in a well-seasoned dish. It enhances the combination of other ingredients. Light illumines other objects in the room beyond itself.

So we really return to the idea that we are reflecting the image of Christ, who is the true salt (substitute preserver) and the true light. Jesus lived so completely for us that his righteousness became ours. We take it on as gift and grace, particularly when the law, as Jesus interprets for us in the Sermon on the Mount, is clearly not something we can fulfill perfectly. How could our righteousness ever exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees? Only by the brightness of Christ’s face shining through us, such that all that is seen is Christ, not us. And then we are truly blessed and are able to be evermore perfectly, the salt and the light that God made us to be, adding flavor and illumination to all of life.

And so Team Peace, get out of this locker room called church and go play the game of life in the world with confidence. You are salt. You are light. Remember what we practiced last week -- Doing justice. Loving kindness. Walking humbly with God. Doing. Being. Bowing. Remember that it is your job to show all the world, just how tasty our Lord is. Be flavorful Christians, not bland like milk toast. Give the world something to sink their teeth into, something that will get their mouths watering. Don’t try to cover your light, thinking that by shining brightly you will offend someone. Be the light shining in darkness and keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, just like a solar light must receive power from light to give forth light, you too must receive your brightness by your closeness to Christ.

All right, Team Peace. You are salt and light. You’re going into the world with it. Not too much salt in one spot – shake some here and some there. And whatever you do, don’t cover your Christ light. Got the game plan? All hands in. “Let’s go – on three. 1, 2, 3 – “Let’s go!” Where are you going? “To the world.” What are you taking there? “Salt and Light.”

Parts of the middle of this sermon are adapted from came from this writer on Textweek.com:

Alyce M. McKenzie is Professor of Homiletics, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. She blogs at Knack for Noticing. McKenzie's column, "Edgy Exegesis," is published every Monday on the Preachers Portal.