Matthew 5:13-20 / 5 Epiphany A / 06 February 2011 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA
Salt, light, and the Law this morning from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. He’s preaching on a mountainside to His disciples with the crowds overhearing. He’s just blessed them with His nine Beatitudes, blessings, which we heard last week. And then He follows up with salt and light.
You are the salt of the earth. Notice right off the bat that Jesus doesn’t not say “You need to become salt” or “You need to get to work on your saltiness” but “You are salt.” It’s a given, granted by Jesus Himself. The disciple of Jesus is salt.
Salt? Hmmm. I’ve been called many things, but not that. Salt. What does it mean? Salt seasons, it purifies, it preserves. It’s useful stuff. You don’t need a lot of it, just enough, sprinkled on a dish to tickle the taste buds. A little goes a long way. In Jesus’ day, salt was used to preserve meat from spoilage. Sacrifices were sprinkled with the salt of the covenant. Salt was used to disinfect wounds and was rubbed on the skin of newborns to protect them from various diseases.
The whole earth is not salt but the disciple is the salt of the earth. They have been called out, set apart, chosen. Soon they would be sprinkled, scattered all over the place, seasoning the world with Jesus’ death and resurrection wherever they went. The book of Acts is the record of that. Wherever God has shaken you out – your home, your community, your work, your school – there you salt, seasoning your little corner of the world with Jesus as one of His salty baptized believers.
You have no choice really. You are the salt of the earth. Like it or not, to be a disciple of Jesus makes you salt. Not sugar. Sweetness is not what the kingdom calls for. Salt. Biting, stinging, preserving, purifying. Your little goes a long way, longer than you realize or even imagine. This isn’t about Christians being a moral influence in the world or Christians becoming politically involved. You aren’t salt insofar as you are able to effect change in society. You are salt as you follow Jesus, as you die and rise with Him, as you live and move and have your being in HIm and not in yourselves.
Your saltiness is not yours but Christ’s. He is what makes the disciple salty just as He is the One who makes them light. His death and life at work in them are what gives the disciple that peculiar edge. And without Jesus’ death and life, there is no salt in the disciple. They become salt without taste, salt that has lost its savor, salt that is good for nothing but to be used to pave pathways and be trampled underfoot.
It’s possible for salt to lose its saltiness. In Jesus’ day, salt was collected from evaporating pools at the Dead Sea, that big saline sea. It wasn’t pure sodium chloride as we know salt, but a mixture of all sorts of minerals from which the sodium chloride could be leached out. And then the salt would lose its saltiness and be used like crushed rock for paving pathways.
How does a disciple lose his saltiness? By losing your bead on Jesus and fixing your eye on something other than Jesus. By justifying yourself, trying to atone for your own sins, leaving out the cross and looking for another way to be, you know, “spiritual without being religious.” Well, spirituality without the death and resurrection of Jesus is like salt that has lost its bite. It’s worthless. Fit for the garbage heap.
You are the light of the world. A city on a hill. A lamp on a stand. Jesus is the light of the world too. In fact He is the source, the disciple is the reflection. Like the moon reflecting the sun’s rays. Jesus is the light, and you, disciple of Jesus, reflect His light into the darkness of this world. Like salt, light makes a difference. It’s noticed. It’s hard to hide. Like a shining city set high on a hill that can be seen for miles around. Or like a lamp set a on a stand that fills the whole house with light.
You are light. Enlightened by the Spirit. Remember in Baptism how we give a lit candle to the newly baptized. It’s a little symbolic gesture that reminds us that we are light thanks to Jesus our Light. We reflect Him in what we do and say in the world. “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
Ah good works. You sometimes get the impression that good works are a dirty word in the Lutheran church. Not so! Here is the proper place for good works. Before others. For the neighbor, that person God has placed next to you. Jesus shines His light on your works not so you can see them or so God can see them, but so your neighbor can see them. That’s how faith is made visible. Faith itself is invisible. You can’t see my faith; I can’t see your faith. As James reminds us, you can talk about faith all you want but it doesn’t mean anything. It’s like saying “be warm” to a person who needs a coat. Or “be filled” to a person who needs some food. Faith talk is meaningless to others, because faith is between you and God. God sees your faith; people see your works. Keep those straight, and everything works out just fine.
We have a hymn from the Reformation says it well:
Faith clings to Jesus’ cross alone
And rests in Him unceasing;
And by its fruits true faith is known,
With love and hope increasing.
For faith alone can justify;
Works serve our neighbor and supply
The proof the faith is living.
Let your light shine before others, your fellow man, that they may see your good works. They are watching closely, you know. They want to see what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. They want to see what difference it makes. They need to see the light. they need to taste the saltiness. There’s no point in talking about your faith, because that’s well, your faith. It doesn’t mean anything to anyone else. You show your faith with what you do. Good works. Concrete, real, get-your-fingernails,-dirty, self-sacrificing good works – these make an impression.
In 2nd century Egypt, the 10% or so of the Christians in Egypt did the vast majority of the social work. In the early church, it was the Christians who went to the places where the poor congregated. The fed the hungry, they clothed the naked, they did works of mercy, not to merit God’s favor or earn their salvation, but to serve their neighbor in love. People took notice. They wanted to know more about those Christians who went out of their way to do good.
I was talking to Rev. Matt Harrison, our synodical president, a couple of weeks ago about this. We were talking about congregations losing touch with their communities and what we can do to make people notice our congregation again. He said three words: works of mercy. Go into your community, find out what the needs are, and fill one of them in the name of Jesus. Let your shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. He gets the glory, not you.
God doesn’t want to see your good works. He knows about them before you wave them around. He prepared them for you to do before you were around to do them. And you can’t do enough of them well enough to earn your way into the kingdom. Which brings us to the Law and Jesus. “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” And don’t kid yourself, the scribes and Pharisees were pretty good at the religion game. If anyone nearly earned their way in, it was them. And yet your righteousness has to exceed even theirs.
Good works won’t get you there. The best of your good works are still soiled with Sin, with your inherent selfish self-centeredness. Even the most noble act of charity has something less than charitable in it. That’s where Jesus comes in. He came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. He didn’t come to set aside the commandments, as though God changed his mind midstream. He came to fulfill them, to literally fill them up with His own perfect obedience.
Jesus came as pure salt to this earth. As the Light of light, the true and only Light of the world. His righteousness exceeded that of the scribes and the Pharisees. His was the righteousness of God. He kept the Law perfectly. He fulfilled the word of the prophets down to the last stroke of the pen.
And the wonder of all wonders is that He gives that righteousness to you. He credits you with something He did. That’s how you become salt and light. Not by what you do; but by what He did and does for you. You are baptized to be the salt of the earth. You are baptized to be the light of the world. You are given to live and love under the umbrella of God’s undeserved kindness in Jesus called “grace.” And under that grace you cannot fail. You cannot fail as salt of the earth, unless you lose your saltiness, that is, lose your faith in Jesus’ blood and righteousness. You cannot fail as light of the world unless you hide the good works God is doing through you.
At the close of the day, at the end of your life, your are covered with a righteousness not your own, a righteousness that exceeds that of even the scribes and the pharisees, the righteousness that comes as a gift through faith in Jesus, who came to fulfill the Law and the prophets, who kept every commandment down to the very least stroke of the pen. Be light. Be salty. Let them see Jesus.
In the name of Jesus,