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Like watching a train wreck, there is a strange juxtaposition between wanting to turn away and our compulsion to watch. The sermon on the mount is precisely this kind of “collision.” The gravitational pull to those who are broken, desperate and oppressed make each word a savory morsel, while at the same time the sermon functions like two magnets repelling one another as it scourers with pinpoint accuracy the ugliness we know lurks beneath our facades. Jesus’ teaching is the human dance of hope and hopelessness.
We’ve all heard sermons on this passage of Salt and Light. Despite it’s familiarity, can we say there is a tangible transformation based on this teaching? Salt adds flavor and serves as preservative, light illuminates the darkness. While true, has our culture, especially the Christian culture, become the attractive, savory, influence that it was admonished to be? I think an honest appraisal would have to conclude that this teaching hasn’t sunk very deeply within us.
Perhaps we missed something.
Perhaps modern Christianity sees itself as preserving the world when it engages in culture wars such as abortion, the LBGTQ community, gun violence, or school choice. If these types of activities constitute being “the Light in the world” then it begs the question: Who is seeing these works and glorifying the Father by them? The influence doesn’t seem to go very far and when there is influence, it seems mostly negative. We can do better.
Let’s start with a clean whiteboard.
““You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 5:13–16
The first thing we learn is that “You” does NOT refer solely to Christian people as we’ve been mistakenly taught. Scholars know this because there wasn’t a single Christian in Jesus’ audience because the sermon predates Christianity. Observing the correct cultural context reorients this teaching into a new direction, one that is inclusive of all comers, all hearers. This audience had no prerequisites, neither should we today. The FUBU (For Us By Us) lens is to be removed if we should see clearly. Easier said than done.
Next we have to look at the passage within its textual context. We saw that the beatitudes (v.1-10) were essentially the chiastic outline for the sermon, which pivoted on last weeks message about Power. The thrust of the whole sermon is to offer a solution to the world that moves the audience into authenticity and freedom, not into another institutional religion. The promises in this sermon are for all comers, not solely Christians.
If this is true then the passage on salt and light cannot be about waging war on the culture. This changes pretty much everything. It’s not about how loudly or obnoxiously you proclaim your beliefs, its about being real. It’s about being authentic (more on this later). It’s about finding who we truly are. It’s not about promulgating a religion that hadn’t even started yet.
So what is Jesus saying?
Salt doesn’t make everything taste salty, it makes everything taste more like itself (up to a point), at which point it loses its saltiness. The loss of saltiness is not only having something taste like nothing, its also when everything only tastes like salt. The salt on the margarita makes the flavors in the margarita stand out, but too much salt, or not enough and the margarita is meh. Christianity has become meh in our world for the same reasons. Many Christian people are not becoming themselves, they are given a tribal identity in exchange for themselves. The message of Jesus is that we are the salt of the earth ( “gēs“- land/earth/people of) to enable each other to stand out. We are to help each other become more us, not less us. If this were happening, the church would be the most united and most diverse place on earth. It’s not.
Light in the same way can be blinding but when spread around, it illuminates all the distinct features of every room. Light reflects off of every obstacle, creating shadow, depth, and allows us to “see.” Light is the pervasive influence that overcomes the darkness, and allows the real us to stand out against the blackness. If we are the light of the world (cosmos-universe, people of the world), then the message is that we are to shine upon each other, enabling us to see with clarity who (and whose) we really are. The church then should be liberating people back into their lives and back into the world, not hijacking their lives and pulling them out of the world. How did the church take the teaching to illuminate others and turn it into an evacuation threat?
There is no doubt, the text is focused upon all people, not just a tribe, not just believers. This is not a message for the church, but everyone. This means, all people (gē/cosmos) are to flavor and influence one another. This presupposes diversity leading to unity and inclusion. Instead what we have is uniformity striving to overcome diversity by diminishing it through exclusion and power plays. We polarize on our differences in fear, we don’t seek to grow from them. Precisely what the audience was experiencing under the oppression of religion and state. Just like today.
Now we can hear these words in a fresh new way. Follow the path of humility not certainty. Never forget that you too have a light that needs to be shined into the world. Warm your hands to everybody’s fire, savor the nuance of all comers, and once others see that it’s not only safe but valued to be who they are, then we will each emerge from our pseudonyms and the world will never doubt the existence of God. The differences come together and create a body, a unified collective.
Let’s not settle for the surrogate. Let’s own who we are and let our light shine, sure some won’t understand, nor appreciate it…..yet. Unrecognized brilliance is still brilliance, its still light. The freedom you possess by shining will be so contagious, that those who have become the salt of the world will have the enviable life. And that’s what it means to be salt and light. In fact, through this lens, we can see this taking place all over the world.