Matthew 5:13-16 “Salt and Light”
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. 15 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. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
Salt and light are timeless illustrations that are still relevant and helpful today, 2,000 years after Jesus uses these everyday items to illustrate his teachings. However, I believe that some of our technological advancements might cause us to overlook some of the aspects of these everyday items that could help us to better understand what Jesus is getting at. So let’s look quickly at salt and light.
The Romans of Jesus’ day had a statement, “There is nothing more useful than sun and salt.” Salt was considered such a precious commodity that the Roman soldiers were often paid in salt. The Latin word for salt is actually where we get the word salary from. Salt was used in the first century as a preservative for items like meat. Salt draws moisture to itself, which is pretty obvious if you have ever tried to use a salt shaker on a humid summer day to salt your corn-on-the-cob. It clumps up in the shaker because of the nature of salt to draw moisture to itself. Salt was used before refrigeration to preserve meat because it draws the moisture out of meat and bacteria needs moisture to grow.
But preservation is far from the most common use for salt. If I went into your homes, I would probably find that 100% of you have some good old NaCl in your kitchen. We use salt all of the time, maybe a little too often, when we cook or to add a little flavor to your food before you eat it. You have probably heard it said that salt is used to “bring out” the flavor of your food. It is used to enhance the taste of the food that you add it to.
The goal of adding salt to food is not to taste salt. I like salty foods like pretzels and potato chips. I bet most of you do as well. But I have never heard of or seen a person just sit down and eat a big old bowl of salt. Salt enhances the flavor of foods, but salt is not a food.
The other everyday item that Jesus mentions is light. We probably all take light for granted. If the sun is down and it is dark outside, which happens at about noon these days, all we have to do is flip on a switch and voila! We have light. Growing up I was always a little offended by the old saying that farmers worked from sun up to sun down. I felt that I was being underappreciated because with the invention of electricity, a farmer didn’t have the luxury of sleeping in until the sun came up and he/she didn’t get to come in when the sun went down. There are lights in the barn and on the tractors today.
But if you have ever been in a very dark place, away from the lights of the city and the cars, maybe in Staunton Friday night around 11:00 pm, you know that even a little light can make a big difference. There is one thing that my wife’s home state of Nebraska can boast and that is that you can see the stars in Nebraska like no other place I have ever been. The darker a place is, the better a light can be seen. And the darker it is, the more we are drawn to the light.
As Jesus uses these two everyday examples to teach a timeless lesson, I think that we are to understand him as saying that we are preservers and presenters of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are preservers because without Christians who pass on their faith from generation to generation, from person to person, Christianity would likely die out. Perhaps God would choose another avenue by which to transmit his message, but for now, it is us human beings that have been chosen to pass on what we have come to know. Like salt preserves meat, we are the preservers of the faith.
You might say something like, “Well, we have the Bible and if we Christians didn’t pass on the faith, surely people would still come to know about Jesus.” And I think that is possible. But I also think of the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Acts 8 tells us that this Ethiopian was sitting in his chariot one day after worshiping in Jerusalem and he was reading from the Bible. Philip approaches the Ethiopian and asks him if he knows what he is reading. The Ethiopian replies, “How can I know if someone doesn’t explain it to me?”
The Bible is a gift to us to help us understand who God is. I am thankful for the Bible because I don’t know how we could know as much about God as we do today without it. But God did not commission the Bible to be the means by which faith is passed on and lived out. We are salt and we are light. We are called to be the preservers of the faith, passing it on to others. We are preservers and presenters.
But we don’t just rattle off a few Bible verses and expect that we have done our job as salt and light. Like salt brings out the flavor of food, we are called to live out the message of reconciliation. We aren’t called to just quote verses about forgiving others, we are called to forgive others. We aren’t called to just quote verses about loving our enemies, we are called to actually do it. Like salt brings out the flavor, we are called to live out the kingdom. And when we do so, others will see our good works and be drawn to God like a city on a hill, like a moth to a flame, like a Nebraskan to the stars.
I believe that to really understand this passage, we need to remember just who Jesus is talking to. Last week we looked at the beatitudes and I said that it was very likely that all of the religious elite, the powerful, and the leaders would have heard the first few words out of Jesus’ mouth and then turned and went home or at least written this guy off as anything but the Messiah. This is typical of Jesus’ ministry. Those that thought they had it all together were not drawn to Jesus for any reason other than to try to discredit him. So who is left? A hodge-podge of people who are looking for a way to connect with God. These are the people who do not have it all together. These are likely people like the tax collectors and the sinners, the poor, the tired, the weary, and the oppressed. The people that are left and still there listening would include people like those who would eventually form Jesus’ closest group of friends and support network: the disciples. We learn from Matthew 4 that Simon (aka Peter), Andrew, and James and John, the sons of Zebedee have already started following Jesus and they seemed to have been among those present for the preaching of the Sermon on the Mount. These were not great men by most standards, at least not at this stage of their lives. They were not frequently tapped on the shoulder and asked to bring the morning message at the synagogue. They didn’t make the headlines in the local newspaper. They were not interviewed by Oprah; they were not even interviewed for the school newspaper. They were just regular people. People like you and me.
I love to look at the lives of the disciples because it makes me feel so much better about my life and my efforts to follow Jesus. Maybe that isn’t a real “Christian” thing to do, looking at others’ failures to make yourself feel better. But if we are honest, we know that it works. In all seriousness, if we look at the disciples, we see time and time again that these men fail, and sometimes they fail badly.
In Matthew 8 we read about the time when Jesus and his disciples are on a boat crossing the Sea of Galilee and Jesus decides that it is a good time to take a nap. But a big storm rises up and the disciples get worried that they aren’t going to make it to the other side before their boat gets torn up and sinks to the bottom of the sea. So they run down below deck and find Jesus, amazingly still asleep, and wake him up saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” Sleepy Jesus rolls over and he rebukes the storm and he looks at the disciples, and he is like, What? Why are you afraid, you of little faith?
Later, in chapter 14, we find Jesus sending the disciples ahead on the boat and he tells them, “I’ll catch up on foot.” What they didn’t know is that this meant he was going to walk across the water to catch them. Peter calls out to Jesus to allow him to walk on the water to meet him, and he does. So Peter gets out of the boat, takes a few steps, and then starts to sink. After they drag Peter back on the boat, Jesus says to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Mark chapter 9 tells the story of the disciple John coming to Jesus and he says, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” Now it is pretty well assumed across the board that when someone has a demon, it is a bad thing. I’ve never seen a person who was possessed by a demon, but I still feel that I can say with confidence that demon possession isn’t good. So when someone casts out a demon, that is a good thing. Again, I’m just speaking in generalities. I don’t have any first-hand experience. But logic tells me that if demon possession is bad, casting them out is good. And the disciples try to stop this guy from casting out demons in the name of Jesus…because he isn’t a part of their group. Jesus just tells John, if he isn’t against us, he is on our side. Don’t discourage him.
Peter denies Jesus three times the night Jesus was tried and tortured only to be reinstated at the end of Jesus’ time on earth. Peter, James, and John see Jesus’ transfiguration and they think that they need to stay on the mountain forever. These men, the core group of disciples, and people just like them are the ones that Jesus tells right from the beginning, You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world. At first reading, I start to think that maybe Jesus should have held try-outs or something. Because it sounds to me like he is commissioning these average people with no discernable talent or ability to be his messengers of reconciliation to all of the world.
When Jesus said to those gathered there for his Sermon on the Mount that they were the salt of the earth and the light of the world, he was talking to everyday people like you and me. People that put their pants on one leg at a time. Blue collar folks like the fishermen Peter, Andrew, James, and John. White collar folks that collect taxes and crunch numbers for a living like Matthew (though he hadn’t been added to the group yet). The salt of the earth and the light of the world is not made up of the religious elite, the higher ups, or the Ph.D ’s. The salt of the earth and the light of the world is made up of people who love the Lord and want to bring his message of reconciliation to all of the world. It is the regular people like you and me that God has chosen to bring his message of reconciliation.
I have been interested lately in a man who lived in the Broadway, Virginia area in the 1800’s by the name of John Kline. John wore a lot of hats over his lifetime, but his main form of income was as a farmer. John was a part of the Church of the Brethren and he is given a lot of credit for the establishment of churches that now exist in Virginia, W. Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio. And this farmer from Broadway was a strong voice against the Civil War in the late half of the 19th century, penning letters to many political leaders to influence their decisions. He helped to write official church documents for the Church of the Brethren opposing slavery and violence.
Stories of John Kline have him riding his horse through the mountains, preaching and teaching about Jesus Christ. He would use his understanding of herbal medicine to heal the sick. He would deliver grains from his own farm to the hungry. He would give money out of his own wallet to help people in need. And he would ride his horse for miles and miles on a Sunday to bring people to church that couldn’t get there on their own. John Kline was martyred for his stance against the Civil War as he was leaving the home of someone whom he had just helped repair a clock. Even to his last breath, he was helping another person. And I think that one of the most interesting things about John Kline is that he had no formal education. John Kline was salt and light.
Maybe it is a little difficult to connect with a man that lived almost 200 years ago. But how about someone living right now, just up the interstate? I have spoken of Ron before, and I am going to speak about him now as well. Ron was and is your quintessential hippie. Unkempt hair, long beard, second-hand clothes, sometime homemade.
Ron purchased The Little Grill restaurant in 1992. And if you have ever been involved in the restaurant business, you know that Mondays are the slowest day of the week for business. So Ron decided to close the restaurant on Mondays. Close it, that is, to paying customers. Ron began opening his restaurant for a free lunch for anyone. This wasn’t just a soup kitchen; it was a community-building event. Doctors and lawyers break bread next to druggies and the homeless. If you can pitch in and help with cooking or with the dishes, you are invited to do so. But there are no requirements for this lunch. Turns out there is such a thing as a free meal.
This free meal soon outgrew the Little Grill and Ron began to eye the old, rundown, dilapidated building across the street. Through fund raising and personal loans the building was purchased and dubbed Our Community Place. Over a period of seven years the building was renovated and paid for through the efforts of the same people that would one day join in a meal in those very facilities. Now OCP offers two or three free meals every day as well as a place for various recovery groups to meet and other community activities to take place.
Today Our Community Place is not only a place for a meal, but a place for spiritual nurture as well. Within those renovated walls a congregation was birthed known as The Early Church. The Early Church is a congregation of Virginia Mennonite Conference with a special dedication to service to others. They say, “We commit ourselves to a Christ-like care for the least and lowly among us, including those most rejected and despised: the sick, the hungry, the naked, those in prison, those who are homeless, the oppressed, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan.”
I tell you about the work of Our Community Place and The Early Church for one reason and one reason only. All of this, the outreach, the healing ministries, the care for the least of these, the church gathering, all came about because of some random hippie on the north side of Harrisonburg who accepted Christ’s call to be salt and light to the world. Salt and light.
So I come back again to these bumbling fishermen we commonly refer to as the disciples. They were regular, run of the mill, blue collar workers like so many of us. And sure, they made mistakes. But these men were faithful and they accepted Christ’s call to be salt and light. They preserve and passed on the message of Jesus. They brought out the flavor of a life submitted to Christ. And they shone a light in the darkness leading others to follow Christ as well.
An uneducated man is given credit for being one of the most influential people in the Church of the Brethren. A hippie on the north side of Harrisonburg has been the inspiration for thousands of people to care for the least of these. And a bunch of bumbling fishermen help establish a movement that continues to this very day.
We are called to be salt and light to the world. No matter what we have done or where we have been, we are Christ’s chosen method for spreading his message of reconciliation to all of the world.