Abolishment, Fulfillment, and Setting the Bar High

Matthew 5:13-20

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.

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Now we are really getting into it! We Mennonites love the Sermon on the Mount, in large part because of this passage. Salt, light, and glorifying the Lord, who could ask for anything more?

I think we focus on this passage for a number of reasons and I want to spend some time looking at a few of these reasons this morning. The first one is simply because this passage is pretty easy to preach on. How many of you have ever heard a sermon on this passage that focused on the different aspects of salt and light and used them as a metaphor for how we are called to live as Christians? If you have been around Staunton Mennonite for a while, you probably have, because I know that I have done exactly that. This preaches well because salt has many different uses. It is used to preserve meat. Salt is used to melt ice, as we have become well aware this winter. It is used for medicinal purposes. But perhaps the thing that it is best known for is for being a spice. Salt adds flavor to our foods and it is a very distinctive taste.

My wife’s birthday was this past week and we went out for a nice meal. I got a hamburger. But it wasn’t just any old hamburger. It was probably the best hamburger I have ever eaten. As I was enjoying this juicy piece of processed bovine, I ask Sonya, “What is that acidic, citrusy taste?” I tried to identify a number of unique flavors that were jumping off that bun. Is that turmeric? Maybe a little thyme? I really couldn’t say. But when I picked up that good-old french fry, there was no doubt what I was tasting: salt. And much like salt, we as Christians are called to be that unique flavor on the palate of society that when people get a taste they are able to say, “Hey, that’s different; that’s not like everything else.”

So you see how easy it is to talk about the various characteristics of salt and connect them to our calling as followers of Jesus. And I do not mean to criticize any pastor that takes that route this Sunday but that’s not going to be my focus today. I’m not going that route because that is not how Jesus takes this.

Verse 13 says this: “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.”

There is no explanation as to what Jesus means by salt – its preservative qualities, or its flavorful nature. The focus of this passage is not what salt is or how we are to be salt. Salt is simply assumed to be useful. The focus of this passage is on the loss of saltiness.

Those of you who are good chemists know that salt is a very stable compound. Good old NaCl does not easily break down. But it can.

Jesus goes on in verse 14 to say, “You are the light of the world…” He continues with a metaphor of a city on a hill. And if you light a candle, you don’t hide it under a bowl or a bushel basket, depending on the translation. You put it on a lampstand.

I am appreciating my commentary by Scot McKnight on the Sermon on the Mount as he is able to call attention to things that often go unnoticed by those of us who are pretty familiar with this teaching. McKnight notes that the word that Jesus uses in verse 13 when he says, “You are the salt of the earth” is not the same word used in verse 14, “You are the light of the world.” I use these words synonymously, which is exactly what McKnight suggests is inaccurate.

When I hear the word “earth,” I think of the globe, the third planet from the sun. But this word means earth, like soil or dirt. It just doesn’t sound very appealing to tell someone that they are the salt of the dirt.

McKnight argues that Jesus is speaking of the land, of Israel. When Jesus speaks of salt losing its saltiness, he is offering a warning to his Jewish followers to be aware of the potential for diminished results among their own people. Remember, what we call Christianity today started out as a movement within Judaism. The first “converts” were Jewish. This was a challenge to not lose their efficacy among their own people.

The second statement of being light to the world, according to McKnight, is a reference to how these followers of Jesus were to reach out to the Gentiles. The word “world” here is the Greek word “kosmos.” Jesus was encouraging his followers to not lose their saltiness, their efficacy among the other Jews, but he was also encouraging them to be a light to those outside their boarders. Kosmos includes not only the earth, but the entire created order! Be light to the moon. Jesus might have even been encouraging them to be light to those burning balls of gas we call stars! (Okay, maybe not.)

Jesus’ point is rather clear: don’t hide your light. Don’t hide your Christian convictions. Instead, put that light on a lampstand and allow that light to shine. This lampstand is something portable. You can set it in any room, or carry it with you as you go from place to place, bringing light everywhere you go.

Verse 15 reveals something that I think Mennonites are pretty good at and pretty well known for: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Think with me of some of the things that we as Christians are called to do that may not seem consistent with the rest of the world’s priorities. One of the first things that comes to mind is that we are called to forgive. Just like Jesus forgave his killers as he hung on the cross, we are called to offer unconditional forgiveness to those who do us harm.

Why do these stories of forgiveness make such an impact in our society? Ask most anyone about the shootings at the Amish school house in Pennsylvania in 2006, and the thing that they remember is the way the Amish community offered forgiveness and pastoral care to the family of the shooter. They took food to the killer’s family!

Not quite a year before this shooting, a father and his five children were driving together to meet their mother near their home in Washington state when an oncoming pickup truck crossed the center line and struck their vehicle. All five children died. For sure this was a terrible tragedy, yet what caught the attention of our nation was not the death of five young, innocent Mennonite children. It was the friendship that grew between the father of the deceased and the man who drove the other truck.

From volunteering to rebuild houses after natural disasters, to offering to pay for a stranger’s medical expenses, to the mother of five dead children walking into the hospital room of the man who caused their death just days earlier to offer him forgiveness, we are called to bring the light of Jesus to the world. There are times we have done this well, but we can always do better.

For some reason, those who put together the lectionary decided that they did not want to stop today’s Gospel reading at verse 16. Instead, they continue with what seems to be a totally unrelated statement from Jesus. I think that might be because while the whole salt and light thing is easy to preach on, the rest of this passage is quite difficult. So the lectionary says Feel free to focus on one part of this passage and not the other. But that’s not how we roll, so stick with me and I’ll try to bring these two sections together.

In verses 17-18 we read this: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

When Jesus speaks of the Law and the Prophets, he is talking about a large portion of what we consider the Old Testament. Evidently someone had accused Jesus of throwing out the Old Testament or was claiming that it no longer had any relevance for the 1st century Jew. But Jesus responds by saying that nothing could be further from the truth! Not even the smallest letter or stroke of the pen, no “jot or tittle,” the KJV says, will be removed from the Law and Prophets. And Jesus goes on to say that anyone that sets even one of these teachings aside will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. In fact, he says that if anyone wants to see the kingdom of heaven, their righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees.

I think I would have gone home right then.

Who is more righteous than the Pharisees? Not I, said this pastor. But that isn’t the only troubling thing about this passage for me. The thing that bothers me the most is that Jesus didn’t seem to follow every jot and tittle of the Law and Prophets. Jesus broke the Sabbath laws, healing on the 7th day. He touched and ate with unclean people. He even spoke to a Samaritan woman, discussed theology with her, and asked her for a drink from an unclean vessel.

The issue that I have with this text is that Jesus himself did not live up to his own lofty expectations.

That’s one way to look at it. Or maybe Jesus didn’t mean what it sounds like he meant. I’m going to lean toward the second option.

Again I turn to McKnight’s commentary on the Sermon on the Mount. McKnight claims that what Jesus is doing is not choosing which laws to apply and which not to apply. What Jesus is doing is giving us a new way to read and understand those laws. This is what we call “hermeneutics.” Jesus gives us a new hermeneutic, a new way to read and interpret the Old Testament. Or as McKnight says, “it means some radical revisioning without abolishing.”

Now I can just hear my Old Testament professor saying, “Don’t over Jesus-ize the Old Testament” and I want to be careful of doing just that. But when Jesus proclaims that he did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it, he is saying that he completes the Law and Prophets; Jesus is the goal of the Law and the Prophets. He also says something very similar in John 5:39-40: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

Jesus didn’t abolish the Scriptures, these very texts were meant to point to Jesus. And now we interpret those texts through the teachings and the life of Jesus. Jesus didn’t abolish the Sabbath laws, no, he reminded us why the Sabbath laws were there in the first place. The Sabbath was created for human beings, not the other way around. He didn’t throw out the purity system, but he revealed that it is what comes out of a person’s body that makes them unclean, not what they put in or with whom they eat.

All of those texts that the Pharisees and the keepers of the Law claimed Jesus failed to keep were indeed kept by Jesus. They just weren’t kept in the way that the Pharisees and keepers of the Law wanted him to keep them. They had a different hermeneutic. We need Jesus to understand the meaning of the Old Testament passages.

Many in our congregation will be familiar with the company Rosetta Stone. Rosetta Stone is a software company that produces computer-assisted language learning programs in over 30 languages and was started just up the road from us in Harrisonburg, VA by some Mennonites. But I wonder just how many of us are aware of the origin of the name Rosetta Stone?

Ancient Egypt had many mysteries that were being explored in the late 18th century; think of the Great Pyramids, the Sphinx, and things of that nature. One of the greatest difficulties for those who were researching these discoveries was a language barrier. The Egyptians used a language we call hieroglyphics. This language had not been used for centuries, and there was nobody capable of translating the writings found in carvings and paintings. Archeologists, Sociologists, and Linguists alike tried and failed to decipher this dead language. And then a discovery was made.

The Rosetta Stone is a very large, heavy, black stone measuring approximately four feet tall, two feet wide, and one foot thick. As you can imagine, it weighs over 1,600 pounds. It was discovered in the year 1799 near the Nile Delta in a region called Rosetta.

The Rosetta Stone is inscribed with a decree from King Ptolemy V from the year 196 BC. This alone made the stone a very valuable archeological discovery. But its value was found to be even greater when the inscriptions were studied because the decree from the king was recorded in three different languages: Greek, an Egyptian language known as demotic, and Egyptian hieroglyphics. Using the Rosetta Stone and the known languages of Greek and demotic, scholars were able to learn Egyptian hieroglyphics and translate hieroglyphics found elsewhere.

I do not wish to suggest that the Old Testament is completely indecipherable without Jesus; there is indeed wonderful and powerful teaching accessible to anyone. But I do see Jesus as that Rosetta Stone that we can use to read these ancient texts that very likely would otherwise go misunderstood. The Scribes misunderstood them, as did the Pharisees. Jesus brings clarity, understanding, and fulfillment to the Hebrew Bible. Jesus never said that the Old Testament should be abolished. But he gave us the proper way to read and understand this text.

Our challenge today is to remember to be salt and light, be a witness to the love and reconciling powers of Jesus Christ in our own land, our own neighborhood, and our own homes. Because if salt loses its saltiness, it fails to live up to its purpose. But we are also called to take our light out of our own faith communities and into the world so that when others see our light, they too will give glory to the Lord. And that Lord is known through Jesus Christ, our Rosetta Stone. For it is through the One all Scriptures point to that we can truly know God.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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