The Fourth Sunday Before Lent ~ Salt and Light - Matthew 5.13-20
Someone recently shared the thought with me, and I quote,
“The greatest threat to Christianity is not communism, it’s not atheism, it’s not materialism, it’s not humanism. The greatest threat to Christianity is Christians trying to sneak into heaven incognito without ever sharing their faith, without ever living out the Christian life, without ever becoming involved in the most significant work God is doing on planet earth.”
This is exactly what Jesus was talking about in the part of the Sermon on the Mount from which today’s gospel passage is taken. The gathered crowd to whom Jesus was speaking weren’t United Nations, or a or a Parliament, but rather a group of common people living ordinary lives, meeting on a hillside. They were under occupation; they couldn’t make their own laws; they couldn’t plan their own futures; yet Jesus said to them, “You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world.” A fairly radical, and indeed bemusing thing to say or hear.
What did it mean to them and what does it mean now? Why does Jesus insist that we need to “pass the salt and turn on the light?”
I. Shake the Salt on a Decaying World
Firstly, “You are the salt of the earth.” (v.13a) Salt is composed of sodium and chloride. If you pour hydrochloric acid on your hand, it will be burned away in less than a minute. Drink it and you will die horribly, very quickly. But if you add sodium to hydrochloride you get salt, which is one of the most commonly useful substances on planet earth. Indeed without it we could not survive.
We need to understand how valuable salt was in Jesus’ time. So valuable was it as a preservative that it was often traded ounce-for-ounce with gold. Roman soldiers were paid in salt. In fact, the word salary is derived from the word for salt. So a Roman soldier didn’t do his job, he wouldn’t get all of his salt. That’s where we get the phrase, “He is not worth his salt”.
So with salt, we have themes about value and preservation, then and now. Think of our world now, and consider how much worse things would be if there was no Christianity and no churches. By churches, of course, I don’t man the buildings but the people who gather in them. Good-hearted, straightforward, loving, faithful folk, like you and me, striving to make a difference in whatever ways we can. Trying to live and preach the gospel of salvation and model in our lives the love of God for all people. In that sense we are and need to be, need to be salt… valuable, preservative people.
But we must be careful - Jesus goes on to say, “…but if the salt loses its flavour, how shall it be seasoned?” This relates to the Dead Sea, which some of us have visited in Jordan and Israel in recent years. Much of the salt that was used in Palestine came from the Dead Sea, which is more than a mile and a half below sea level.
The Dead Sea has an inlet from the river Jordan but it has no outlet. The hot sun evaporates the water and leaves behind a chunky white powder made up of a combination of salt and minerals. But the salt is mixed with minerals and isn’t pure sodium chloride. So if the air gets a bit damp the salt is dissolved and dissipates. If that happens the salt loses its seasoning, as Jesus put it: a known phenomenon which they understood and sought to avoid. For then, as Jesus put it: “It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot”. (v.13c) - it becomes literally “good for nothing.” Perhaps you remember the one about the little boy who came home one day, and said to his mother, “if you’ll give me £5 I’ll be a good boy today.” She looked at him and said, “Why can’t you be good for nothing like your father?”
The point is that useless salt couldn’t be thrown in a garden or field because it would kill what was planted. So instead, it would be thrown onto the roads where it would gradually be ground into the dirt and disappear, and then people could just walk over it.
Such salt has not served its purpose, and indeed has been allowed to decay, it has been damaged by air and water, and becomes useless. It may look nice in the shaker, but if it stays in the shaker it is worthless. So it is that the church is the salt shaker and we are the salt, needed tp season the world around us with faith, hope and love.
II. Shine the Light to a Darkened World
Secondly, what about the light? Jesus goes on to say, “You are the light of the world.” Which makes us wonder, what’s the difference between salt and light? Salt relates to our character; light relates to our conduct. Salt deals with what we are; light deals with what we do.
We know about light – Einstein notwithstanding - —it dispels darkness, and it attracts. In a dark place with just one light, all eyes focus on it. Light gives direction to those at sea. Seafarers determine their course by looking backwards in time – at the stars giving off light that has taken longer to reach us than since the time of Jesus.
Jesus tells us to shine as light is because our world is in total darkness. It is a recurring theme in the Bible, and over Christmas and Epiphany we have been constantly reflecting on light, as it were. Jesus said “I am the light of the world.” And so our light is to a reflection of his. Like the way the moon reflects the sunlight to us, Jesus is the light that reveals God; we are to be the light that reflects God.
Another little boy (not the cheeky money-grabbing one, you understand) was taken by his mother to see a great cathedral. On the windows were images of various Christian saints. As he was watching the sunbeams shining through the stained-glass windows, he said, “Look, there are people with light shining through them.” He was right. That’s what we are called to do —to let the light of Jesus shine through us. We are to be transparent to the love of God.
Jesus goes on to tell us not to hide our light. We don’t need any secret service Christians. We need to be light in a dark world. Notice Jesus did not say “you can be salt, or you should be light.” He said, “You are.” Which means it is our task to shake the salt on a decaying world, shine the light to a darkened world. Shake it all about and glow in the dark! As Russia renews its attacks on the Ukraine and Trump’s America slips into further ridicule, values of justice, tolerance and freedom are clothed in deeper darkness.
Which brings us the instructions Jesus gives at the end of today’s gospel:
III. Share the Truth to a Decaying World
“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” That’s how the Prayer Book puts it, and we say it every Thursday morning here. And raises a question: How do we know if we’re being salt and light?
There are two important days in the life of a Christian: firstly, the day they become a Christian and secondly, the day when they come to understand why they became a Christian. Some people don’t actually make it to that second day. Yet when you begin to live your life in such a way that people are attracted to Jesus Christ, and want to glorify our Father in heaven, you will know that your salt is tasty and your light is bright. As someone said, “The real mark of a saint is that they make it easier for others to believe in God.”
So we ought to live our lives in such a way and reflect the Lord Jesus Christ in such a way, that it not only brings glory to God, but it causes other people to want to glorify God. That’s what Jesus is saying, then and now. It is our calling, as Christians, in fact: to be as salt and to live as light.
A final story:
There was once a beautiful goose who broke her wing during the flight home for the winter. A sympathetic farmer rescued the fallen bird and took her home. His children adopted the goose as their pet and began to feed her from the table and take her places. By the next autumn the children were heartbroken as they watched the goose look at the other geese who were flying south for the winter, but her wing still wasn’t strong enough for the flight. Every time a flock flew south, the goose would look longingly into the sky and then return to play with the children. A year later the goose’s wing had grown much stronger, but the children had fed the goose so well that when she attempted to take off she was too fat to get off the ground. After one or two attempts, she gave up and returned to play with the children. By the third year the goose was completely healed. But as the other geese called to go south, the goose never even looked up as they flew overhead. She had become so accustomed to the comfort of her new existence she had lost her focus on the true calling and meaning of her life.
God has not called us to be fat geese, satisfied with a world that is decaying. Rather, God has called us to be eagles soaring through the clouds of holiness: shaking out the salt of a godly life; shining out the light of the truth of Jesus Christ, and bringing as many people as we can to glorify our Father in heaven.
That was, and is, and ever shall be our calling in Christ.
The Rev’d Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 5/02/17