You are Salt and Light

Published: Tuesday, 07 February 2017

SaltThis sermon follows our series in the Gospel of Matthew and was presented by Geoff Pound at the Ashburton Baptist Church on 5 February 2017. Questions for personal and group study follow the sermon script.

Reading: Matthew 5:13-20

13 “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.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 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.

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter,[a] not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks[b] 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. 

20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

You are the salt of the earth!

You are the light of the world!

Jesus, the master teacher is at work in his mountain classroom.

His teaching is simple, direct, concrete and colourful.

He doesn’t say, ‘You should be salt’ ‘You ought to be light’.

There are no should and oughts to fill us with guilt.

These are words of grace. Sheer blessing. Fulsome commendation. They even sound like a commissioning!

I wonder how your children and grandchildren got on in the classroom and playground on this first week of school? I wonder if any of them heard words like:

“You are so mean!”

“You stupid little fool!”

“You are so selfish!”

Psychologists suggest that for every negative message that primary school-aged children hear, they need to hear ten positive messages just to restore their self-esteem. Maybe that number doubles during adolescence.

Call a child ‘bad’ often enough and they will believe us. They’ll act badly. Call a person ‘hopeless, ‘dumb’, ‘horrible’ and eventually they will live out the name they’ve been called.

Call a person thoughtful, dependable, helpful and they will grow into that identity and into that behavior.

Jesus is gifting us with affirmation and trust in whom we are becoming.

13 “You are the salt of the earth;

In these health-conscious times we’re warned against a high salt diet but let’s ponder this image this week. Let’s try to grow in our understanding of all that Christ means when he calls us salt.

In some countries people will catch fish in nets, lay them out on cloth on the beach and then cover them with salt to preserve them from going bad as they dry in the sun.

Think of why we gargle with salted water when our throat is sore or why we put salt in our bath water when we have cuts and sores.

In Biblical times and even as recently as in the writings of Marco Polo salt was used as a form of currency. It was so essential to life. The word ‘salt’ gave rise to the word ‘salary’ and the expression that a person wasn’t worth their salt.

Let’s contemplate this image if we’re cooking with a little salt this week and if you might sprinkle your fish and chips with salt.

The salt’s effectiveness is not in itself but the way it brings out the taste and the flavour of our food.

Thinking back to our first days at school, how we wanted to fit in, how we longed to be accepted and this craving is something that we never lose. There’s no getting away from the truth that to follow Jesus is to be radically different. To be salt in the earth and to be light in the darkness is a calling to stand out.

We don’t need much salt to make a difference and this in itself is both comforting and reassuring. Especially when we’re the only person in the class or in the office who is a follower of Jesus.

To this small, ragbag of followers on the mountain in a society ruled by the mighty Roman Empire, Jesus said: You are salt. You are light. Just a few of you following my way, just a sprinkling of you living out my Beatitudes, can make the world of difference.

If you’ve ever been in the Scouts you’ll know that at least once a year you’re encouraged to sell Scout biscuits for the annual fund raiser. Charlotte McCourt is an eleven year old from New Jersey and this enterprising Girl Scout has sent emails and now videos to her potential customers.

 Instead of the usual flattering false advertising her reviews of scout cookies are brutally honest. She reviews each type of biscuit on a scale of one to ten.[1]

Charlotte praises one type of cookie as being “inspired” and another type as having a “divine taste”. But she dismisses another variety for their “unoriginality” their blandness and another type as “kind of boring”.

In her most scathing review she wrote that the Toffee-tastic cookie is “a bleak, flavourless, gluten-free wasteland.” I’m telling you she says, “it’s as flavourless as dirt.”

Thanks to her honesty, Charlotte’s cookie web site with this video has had over 8 million views, her sales have skyrocketed and while her goal was to sell 300 boxes of biscuits, by the end of January, she’d sold over 11,000.

13…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.

What a tragedy to lose our taste, to become insipid, flavourless. When this happens, we deny our very calling as salt. Jesus said, if salt loses its taste there’s no option but to throw it out.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed that the German church had a duty to stand up against the injustices and violence of Hitler and the Nazis.[2] He also asserted that by not living into the role of salt and light, the church as it existed through the Second World War had lost its saltiness and therefore should be abandoned. How relevant is this word and this challenge for the church today, to live into our calling as salt and light.

William Willimon, a Methodist pastor and teacher believes that the greatest challenge facing the church today is “to be as half as interesting as Jesus.”[3] Not just to be interesting, flavoursome, in the way of being fun to be around, but to be truthful, loving, honest, prophetic and courageous.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 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.

Ponder this week on your own and in small groups the different uses of light. Let’s be attentive and prayerful in those times when we’re tempted to hide our light, to blend in, to snuff it out.

You’ve no doubt seen the way many of your friends have embarked on a 365 Gratitude Project in which every day of the year they write about one thing for which they’re grateful. Writing about it and posting it for others to see they say helps us to be on the lookout and it develops our spirit of thankfulness.

Wouldn’t it be great to start collecting examples of where we see God at work making a difference through our lives and in the lives of others. I’m not asking you to post these for the world to see but maybe in our journal to sharpen our vision to see how God makes things different, to season our taste buds so we can taste the difference Christ makes, to see where people like light, are bringing out the rich colours in our world. In this way, we might come to truly believe that we are salt and light and the point is not to boast but ‘to give glory to your Father in heaven’.

Now to the final section in today’s reading. Jesus is addressing a tendency that found its fullest expression in the teaching of a man called Marcion.[4] Marcion lived in Rome 100 years after Christ (c.140). This is what he did and what he’d do if he saw a copy of the Holy Scriptures.

He’d find the end of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures and where the New Testament starts and he’d slash the Scriptures and throw the Hebrew Scriptures away.

Marcion thought the God of the Old Testament was a tyrant. Now living in Rome, he said, there’s no place for such a Jewish book filled with Jewish laws.

This thought was emerging at the time of Jesus. Matthew’s readers were being chucked out of the synagogues. They started meeting, no longer on the Sabbath but the first day of the week. So, do we follow Marcion and reduce the Scriptures to such a small book?

Listen to Jesus:

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 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. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks[b] 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. 

The Old Testament was the Bible of Jesus which he loved and treasured.

The Psalms were his prayer book.

The Hebrew Bible helps to see the development of our understanding of God and the foreshadowing of people who were also called to be salt and light[5].

Don’t cut the Old Testament off and throw it away. Don’t neglect to read it. When Jesus says, ‘Not one letter’ he says literally, ‘not one iota’[6] which is the smallest letter in the Greek language. In the Authorized Version it reads, ‘not one jot or tittle’. Those little dots underneath the letters, like the accent in French or the umlaut in the German. In English we talk about having every ‘I’ dotted and every ‘t’ crossed.

So, while the teaching of Jesus appears so fresh and new, he himself is saying that he didn’t come to rip the Old Testament up. On the contrary, he’s calling us to see his teaching as a fulfilment of what came earlier, to perceive the continuity. But he brought greater demands:

20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

This isn’t a call to ratchet up our piety like the Pharisees but to let our actions of righteousness be greater, to let justice abound more than the Scribes were able to muster.

This is what Karl Barth called “the impossible possibility”.[7] A goal that we can never reach in our own strength but nor do we have to for we have come to understand Jesus not only as a teacher, but a Saviour, and as the Risen Lord who empowers us.

That’s why we’re invited now to the Lord’s table, to be set free by his blood, to be fuelled by his food and to be filled by the power of His Spirit.

Questions for Personal and Group Study

  1. 1.      You are the salt. You are the light. ‘You are’ not ‘you should be’. How do you respond to these words of commendation and commissioning?
  2. 2.      You are the salt of the earth. Consider the different uses of salt and use this to speak about the different aspects of Christ’s calling to us.
  3. 3.      Where do you see in your own life or the life of others, the difference, the tang, the flavor and the taste?
  4. 4.      You are the light of the world. Spell out the different functions of light and gives examples of how each works out in your sphere?
  5. 5.      What should we do in those moments when we are tempted to blend in with the crowd and hid our light under a basket?
  6. 6.      What is the essential purpose of our lives being like a clear light and like tangy salt? (v16)

[1] Caroline Bologna, Girl Scout Writes Hilariously Honest reviews for Cookies She’s Selling, Huffington Post, 31 January 2017.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Eng. eds., Geffrey B. Kelly and John D. Godsey, trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001) Vol. 1. 112-113.

[3] Tim Stafford, ‘What’s Next: Local Church’ Christianity Today, 2 October 2006.

[4] Marcionism, Wikipedia.

[5] See references to ‘light’ in Isaiah 42:6 and Isaiah 49:6.

[6] Iota, Wikipedia.

[7] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), 138.