Salt And Light part 1
by John Thomas Lowe
Salt, Light, and Law in the Sermon on the Mount
Matthew 5:13-16, NIV
13 "You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
14 "You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.
15Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.
16In the same way, let your Light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
13. "You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
When Jesus says, "You are the salt of the earth/light of the world (Mt. 5:13-14), remember that his direct audience is the disciples. The "you" refers to those people who actually live out the things he is saying. But he immediately puts these folks in context: they are living out his principles in the world. And they have an effect on it. Jesus expresses this effect with nice Hebrew parallelism:
"You are the salt of the earth . . . You are the light of the world."
Salt of the Earth
It seems common, at least in the U.S. to think that we should pass laws to legislate morality. But I do not believe that is what Jesus is talking about here. It should be our day to day interactions with the people around us that positively influences them. Our lives should counter the corrupting influences of our secular and ungodly society.
Salt can be a seasoning, but it can also be a preservative. The idea that believers are a preserving presence in the world is an excellent theological note. It does have scriptural support (Gen. 18:20-32; Acts 27:21-25). However, it does not fit the parallelism. The most important purpose of salt in the ancient world was to act as a preservative. Without a refrigerator, meat would quickly spoil. But salt could draw out the moisture and allow the meat to last much longer.
We are to act as a preservative, preventing the world from going bad. We should have a positive influence on those around us. Furthermore, that is most likely what Jesus had in mind here.
The Sermon on the Mount starts with the Beatitudes, and then Jesus has something to say about the role of his followers. He calls us the salt of the earth as well as the light of the world. Rather than withdraw from the world, we are to be engaged with it, making a difference through our presence.
Light of the World
"You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead, they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your Light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. ----Matthew 5:14-16 NIV
Light and darkness are used frequently to refer to spiritual conditions. John says Christ is the world's Light (John 1:4-9). As his followers, that same light should shine out from him, through us, into a world that is still dark. Moreover, his light shone into the spiritual darkness of this world.
That light is within us. However, what will we do with it? Jesus warns us not to hide the light. However, to put it on display for all the world to see. The world will resist that light, making it tempting to hide it and avoid conflict. We must resist that temptation and boldly let his Light shine through us for the world to see.
The noticeable feature of light is that you notice it. It makes a distinct difference. Salt as flavoring has that immediate impact in a way that salt as a preservative does not. If you add salt to something you eat, you notice the difference immediately, just like if you turn the lights on in a room. (Also, the verb Jesus uses in 5:13 could very well be translated as "become bland.”)
So Jesus is saying that people who live out the kingdom life are distinctly different. It is noticeable–in a good way. Dropping the metaphor entirely, the result is, "That the world may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven" (Mt. 5:16).
Jesus is saying that people who live out the kingdom life are distinctly different.
What good deeds?
Like most things in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes our understanding of "good deeds" and turns it entirely inside-out.
The Sermon on the Mount has two significant discussions about what we should do: fulfilling the heart of the law (Mt. 5:21-48) and avoiding a religious show (Mt. 6:1-18). Introducing the discussion in chapter 6, Jesus calls visible religious acts–giving, praying, fasting–"righteousness" (Mt. 6:1). Elsewhere he refers to almost the same things as "deeds" (Mt. 23:5). He uses "good deeds" and "righteousness" interchangeably in this context.
So it would be effortless to conclude that these "righteous" acts–giving, praying, fasting—are the "good deeds" that the world sees, which then glorifies God because of them. Except they are not. The whole point of the discussion in chapter 6 is to keep those things to yourself. Do them in secret precisely so that the world does not see them. The world thinks they are weird, anyway. Moreover, his light shone into the spiritual darkness of this world. Moreover, his light shone into the spiritual darkness of this world—that is impressive.
So that leaves the last half of chapter 5. However, the whole goal of the discussion is to point not to external acts but to the heart.
The focus is on character–heart attitudes that show how we treat others. This is what Jesus is interested in. This is what he wants the world to see–a heart that he has transformed.
These attitudes are not what the world is used to: respecting others by refusing to have contempt for our brothers and trivializing our sisters; communicating sincerely; living from a heart of grace; loving even those who are harming us. That way of living is distinctly different. It is noticeable. And it makes things better.
When the world sees us living that way, it begins to think that God might not be so bad.
So is that what the world is seeing?
Now, I realize that we are fighting an uphill battle on this one. The "rigid, angry religious person" is a convenient literary figure. That narrative is familiar and comforting and can generate many internet clicks. But we have to own that it would ring hollow if it ran counter to most peoples' experiences. But it does not. So we need to ask ourselves two questions:
#1 – Is the world seeing us at all?
Or have we successfully walled ourselves into our colonial-era missionary compounds? We have tons of social get-togethers and meeting places, our schools, our entertainment, our own news, and even our dating sites. We have everything we need to do in life without interacting with those filthy pagans. If that sounds at all familiar, stop it. That is direct disobedience against the second command in the Sermon on the Mount.
"Let your light shine." (Mt. 5:15).
If you are ambitious, the gold standard for building cross-cultural understanding is working together toward shared goals. Learn your neighbors' names. Talk to the people you encounter at work. Even better, listen to them. If there is a hobby you enjoy, join a club. Maybe even revive the ancient practice of having people over for dinner. However you do it, be around people not of your tribe. You just might end up making some new friends.
The second question is much harder:
#2 – Are we being transformed?
A city on a hill could be easy to miss if no lights are on.
I was interviewing for a position at a local Christian school once. The subject of transformation came up, and one of the faculty members asked/commented, "I keep hearing people talk about transformation, but I am not sure what that means." I responded, "I think it just means growing in our ability to love God and other people." I wanted to add, "If that is not happening, then everything we are doing here is a waste of time."
A friend of mine was talking to a retired minister. In all his decades of ministry, he asked him how many lives he saw truly changed. The answer was two.
In his interview on a local podcast, my friend talked about a meeting he had with a former Sunday School teacher. This man had since left the faith because the Christian Story said that people should change. However, he did not see people changing. This became a faith crisis for him and his family, who went through the crisis with him.
It is a question we need to ask ourselves seriously. Do we see Christians radically transformed so that they are living out the Kingdom life? Or is Christianity just a convenient framework for constructing our tribal identity?
My friend, let us call him Tom, did not get any resolution to this question until he did some overseas work. There, he encountered Christians following what Jesus taught–things like praying for your enemies. As Tom puts it, they were doing the stuff. They were distinctly, noticeably different. Moreover, Christ was present so powerfully that miracles were happening. The Story works.
The problem with the relative lack of transformation we see in America is not with the Church itself. It may just be the American Church. The world does not see our light because, on the whole, the American Church may be profoundly sick. That is no good because Jesus' discussion includes a dire warning.
"But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot." (Mt. 5:13b)