Monday, February 6, 2023

Salt and Light for...


Matthew 5:13-20

Epiphany 5 / Year A

I have heard many preachers and teachers contend Christianity is a verb, not a noun.  It is not merely a label one wears.  It involves action.  When Jesus says “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world,” he is not offering a description of who we are.  Rather, he is putting forth metaphors for what we do.  Each statement is in the plural emphatic tense… “All of you are salt and light” 

Like “the good Samaritan”, “salt of the earth” is one of those biblical phrases which has made its way into our common vernacular.  Interestingly, we typically reserved for men and use it – positively – to describe a particular type of person: “He is the salt of the earth.”  Who do you know you would describe as being “the salt of the earth?” and what personality traits do you associate with this saying?     

And while there is nothing particularly wrong with the entomological changes of this phrase over time, given Jesus uses it to describe an action, not a way of being, for this morning’s purposes we need to hear it in a way which takes it back to its origin, to its roots.  In order to do this, let’s translate Jesus’ words this way: “You are salt for the world”, “You are light for the world.” 

The image of light is pretty straightforward.  Salt is a little trickier.  In Jesus’ day salt was used primarily as a preservative.  It kept food from spoiling, thus making it possible for people to do more each day than scavenge for food.  It paved the way for civilization by freeing up human activity to rise above a sustenance existence.  It was quite a valuable commodity and Romans soldiers were paid with it by the pound.  Our word ‘salary’ is actually a derivative of the Latin word for ‘salt.’

A colleague of mine noted this week that if, as followers of Christ, our impact on the world can be compared to light and salt then this means the world is a place of darkness and decay.  And you don’t have to look very hard to find examples of each.  The murder of Tyre Nichols is the most recent manifestation of the darkness.  The infighting and petty squabbles on Capitol Hill provide vivid examples of the decay.

What are we as salt and light supposed to do in order preserve what is good and illuminate what is right?  Our first reading gives us an answer.

The prophet Isaiah carries out his ministry some 500 years before the birth of Jesus.  The people of his day can’t understand why all their pious actions neither garner God’s attention nor secure God’s support.  The Lord tells Isaiah what is lacking:

Is not this the fast I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

This is what it looks like to be salt and light.  This is what it looks like to convert your faith from a noun to a verb:

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,

then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.

The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;

and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.

Being salt and light for the world blesses the lives of those we touch and transforms how we live and move and have our being in it.

Today we hear Jesus teach our righteous must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees if we want to experience what life can be like in the Kingdom of Heaven.  God’s word to Isaiah describes, in part, what this looks like.  We are to advocate for public policies which support God’s vision.  Our parish is called discern ways we can meet the needs of our community.  As individuals we are directed to give of our time, our talent, and our treasure as we encounter poverty, hunger, and injustice.

In meditating on today’s gospel reading it did not escape my attention while it is positive and uplifting when Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world”, after each he offers a cautionary tale.  “If the salt has lost its saltiness what is it good for?”  “Why would you light a lamp and hid it under a basket?”  

As I ponder our faith community, I recognize we are not perfect… and wow, who other than a trained religious expert (i.e. Pharisee or scribe) would be able to recognize our numerous flaws!  But, as I pondered who we are and all we do, I was overwhelmed by how we live our communal life as verbs; in our common life, in our community, in the wider church, and in our world.   We are being salt for the earth.  We are being light for the world.