Sermon 02/05/2023 – Salt and Light

Matthew 5:13-20

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. People do not light a lamp and put it under the bushel basket; rather, they put it on the lampstand, 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 in heaven.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Sermon Text

 In the past few years, the importance of salt has stood out to me. We often talk about how the ancient world valued salt, it being necessary for food and worship and medicine, but it is not as if we stopped having a need for salt today. Food without salt is just not worth eating, we need the sodium to wake up our taste buds. Our roads are not usually coated with rock salt, instead having calcium chloride or some other tri-atomic salt, but sea salt has more than just sodium and chlorine in it, so I’ll call “salt”, “salt” in this case. We still use salt, we still need salt, the only thing that gets strange about Jesus’s metaphor here, is that salt is usually good as long as you keep it dry in a cupboard.

What can we take from this idea of “salt that has lost its saltiness,” is useless? What does it mean for a person to suddenly become “less salty.” Today, we use the term “salty,” to mean irritable or bitter, but Jesus is talking about living a good life as being “Salted,” properly. In truth, I think Jesus is a victim of the metaphor in use, the expression does not translate well from one language to another. Jesus does not say here that salt can become less salty, but that it can become “foolish.” In fact, the word he uses here is the same one as we used a few weeks ago to talk about God, “making foolish,” the wisdom of the world.[1]

Mixed metaphors are something we all accidentally run into now and again. You start out saying that the road was twisting like a snake and then somehow wrap it around to a different image of knotted rope or something and before you know it, everyone is just a little confused what you were going for. I do not know if Jesus is caught in a similar issue, where in trying to be relevant he picks salt as an image, but then realizes that does not quite work for the topic, or if Greek audiences ever used “foolish,” to talk about inanimate objects and we just do not have the records of it.

Either way, if we think of ourselves as salt, an important thing in the world, and then think of how easily we can become “foolish,” then maybe the parable can snap in a bit more concretely. Jesus too seems to understand that this parable needs to be built up a bit more. “You are like salt, if you are not salty enough, then you cannot be made more salty… Well, let me try saying it a different way, if you have a light then hiding it away wouldn’t be helpful. In the same way, if God gave us Jerusalem to be a place of goodness and life, then how can it be anything but that. Therefore, make sure you are acting like the good people of faith you claim to be.”

Light and visibility generally are easier to grapple with than saltiness. Jesus does this several times in his teachings, it is what good teachers will try to do as often as possible. By giving the same idea in three or four different ways, more people are likely to get it than if only one version of the message was attempted. I struggle with getting a good metaphor off on the first try. Grace makes fun of me for this, because in attempting to explain something I will often get more obscure than where I started. So if we are watching Doctor Who, or some other time travel story, I might say, “Oh, of course it’s like the Tralfamadorians.” And then I get blank stares as I then realize, not everyone has read Slaughterhouse-Five, so then I go to Bill and Ted, which is maybe a bit better, but only one more person knows what I meant, and then… It just degrades from there.

Jesus is a better teacher and storyteller than we are, thankfully, and so those second images make clear what Jesus is talking about. Salt, light, a city, all are things that have uses. Salt for food, light for illumination, and a city to be a place of community. If any of those things fail to be what they are meant to be, then they have no purpose. The final one makes a stronger point than the other two. Lamps that do not light a room are useless, and salt that does not salt is even more so, but one could claim to prefer bland food or a dark room. A city though, has to be a city, it cannot stop being what it is. In the same way, Christians cannot choose some days to be good and some days to be evil, we have to always be a city on the hill.

Jesus goes further. The people who teach you to be good, the scribes and pharisees, people Jesus elsewhere says to listen to, we have to be better than them. Jesus is very critical of the leadership of his day, as any prophet must be, but he does call them heirs to the “seat of Moses.”[2] It is easy for us to hear Jesus’s teaching as, “Be better than hypocrites,” but he is saying be better than the people society accepts as good. For me in my role as minister, I try to do well and be good in all things, but my hope is that you all exceed me in all goodness. As Jesus says here, the people in authority are often held up as benchmarks, things to aspire to, but Jesus says we must only aspire to be perfect, and in that aspiration overcome even those who teach us what it means to be good.

As Christians, and especially Protestants, we do not like being told to do things. Faith saves us, so why do anything else? If the transaction for my soul is complete, then why go above and beyond in being good? It is so much a concern of the Church, that our articles of religion address works of “supererogation,” that is, works above what is required. “I have my faith, I have my Church, I send my tithe. What more is required of me?” The answer, to spoiler the game, is “Everything.” Our Articles of Religion ban works of supererogation because there is no such thing.[3] When the goal is “Be thou perfect,” anything less than that is not too much, it is always lacking.[4] We are called, not to salvation by works, but as saved people to do the work before us.

Jesus says our righteousness must be exceptional because we are the visible part of Christ on earth. We are the city on the hill, the world is looking and they will judge how we act. We must act in goodness, we must do more goodness than we might thing is required of us, and we must be willing to take a few hits in the name of what is right. We are to be useful people, not as our primary existence, but as an outpouring of the grace we have been given. Jesus is very careful in his teaching, the person who fails this mission is not excluded from God’s kingdom, they still have a seat, but the joy they have will be lessened by their inability to understand what is good. They will be called, “least in the Kingdom of Heaven.”

I always talk about this life, not as a test or a trial to be overcome, but an opportunity to learn. We can learn to love as Christ did, to serve as Christ did, and to know our limitations and need for rest as Christ did. We can engage in all goodness and joy, but only with practice. It takes time to get good at being good, sometimes a person’s entire life is spent just learning how to not be quite so fussy with the people they see every day. We have people we call Saints for a reason, they figure it out long before the rest of us do. They are the salt and light that shines a way for the rest of we wayward souls.

Whether we think of this call in terms of salt, or light, or as a visible and inescapable reminder of who God is, it is a call we all have. To excel in goodness, to exceed the lessons that were taught to us by those who came before us, and in all things to be the body of Christ to all the world until Christ returns in final victory. We do this through Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, and within this Holy Church, we stand and testify as the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood. – Amen.

[1] 1 Corinthians 1; from the root μωρός where we get the modern, “Moron.”

[2] Matthew 23:2

[3] Articles of Religion of the United Methodist Church. Article XI

[4] Matthew 5:48

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