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  • Writer's pictureRev. Gerald (Jerry) Reiter, Emeritus

Where’s The Salt? Where’s The Light?

Fifth Sunday After Epiphany

“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.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 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. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

“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. 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. 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.

Matthew 5:13-20

“You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.” These are two of Jesus’ best-known metaphors. You’ve heard them hundreds of times and know exactly what they mean, don’t you? You might be thinking, “If I’d known he was going to preach on being the salt of the earth and the light of the world, I’d have stayed home and watched “Gilligan’s Island.”

But maybe we can learn something new – who knows? Miracles still happen! For example, these metaphors of Jesus should come as a real surprise to us; I think they were to the crowds of people listening to Him. Jesus said this right after He said what we call “The Beatitudes.” And the Beatitudes describe the essential character of the disciples of Jesus, while the salt and light metaphors indicated the disciples’ influence for good in the world. But what possible influence could the people described in the Beatitudes have in this tough, hard world?

“The poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peace-makers, those who are persecuted because of righteousness.” Who expects those kinds of people to achieve anything? Especially if they’re a small minority in the world! Who expects those kinds of people to achieve anything? Well, Jesus, that’s who! Incredible as it may sound, Jesus referred to that handful of Palestinian peasants as the salt of the earth and the light of the world. That’s how far-reaching their influence was to be! And that’s how far-reaching our influence is to be!

In order to explain the nature of their influence, Jesus used two domestic metaphors. Every home, however poor, used – and still uses – both salt and light. They’re both necessary in the home. The need for light is obvious. Salt, on the other hand, had a variety of uses. It was used as a seasoning for food. The ancient Job asked, “Is tasteless food eaten without salt?” (Job 6:6a) And in the centuries before refrigeration was invented, salt was used to keep meat from spoiling.

The basic truth lying behind these two metaphors is that the church and the world are two different and distinct communities. On the one hand there’s “the earth” – and on the other hand there’s “you”, who are the earth’s salt. Again, on the one hand there’s “the world” – and on the other hand there’s “you”, who are the world’s light!

The metaphors tell us some things about both communities. The world is a dark place, with little or no light of its own. It needs an external source of light to illumine it. The world also shows a constant tendency to deteriorate. The idea of Christians being salt isn’t because the world needs Christians to spice it up. It’s because the world is rotting! It’s getting putrid! If you haven’t noticed that, you’re either very young, or you haven’t been paying attention! The world can’t stop itself from going bad – only salt introduced from the outside can do that.

So the church is set in the world to play a double roll: as salt to stop – or at least slow down – the process of social and moral decay; and as light to drive away the darkness. And we need to remember that salt is good for nothing if its saltiness is lost; and light is good for nothing if it’s kept hidden.

Of course God has established other restraining influences in the world, like the government with its ability to make and enforce laws; and marriage, home, and family. These can exert good influences in the community. But God expects the strongest influence on a sinful society to be His own redeemed people.

Christian saltiness is Christian character, in our words and in our deeds. If we Christians allow ourselves to be contaminated by the world around us, and act no differently than the non-Christians, we lose our influence. Our influence depends on us being different. If the world around us can’t tell us from non-Christians, we’re useless to God. We might as well be discarded like salt that’s lost its saltiness, “thrown out and trampled by men.” What a come-down that is – going from being saviors of society to being materials for a foot path!

As Christian saltiness is Christian character, so Christian light is Christian actions. “Good deeds,” Jesus called them. “Let your light shine before men,” He said, “that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in Heaven.” Good deeds are works of love, as well as works of faith. They express our loyalty to God and our care for our neighbor as well.

And, as with the salt, so also with the light. If salt can lose its saltiness, the light in us can become darkness. We need to allow the light of Christ within us to shine out from us, so that people can see it! We’re not to be like a town in a valley whose lights are hidden. We’re to be like “a city on a hill” which “can’t be hidden” and whose lights are seen for miles around!

As disciples of Jesus Christ, we’re not to hide the truth we know – and we’re not to hide the truth of who we are! We’re not to pretend to be something we’re not!

The world – and the dictionary – defines a hypocrite as someone who pretends to be what he is not. We usually think of a hypocrite as pretending to be better than he really is, and we all do some of that, don’t we?! But I have an idea that more often we’re hypocritical by pretending to be worse than we really are! We talk like the world, we dress like the world, we act like the world – so that the world won’t recognize who we really are: people redeemed by Jesus Christ. And He wants our Christianity to be visible! Paul wrote, “I’m not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ.” But sometimes we are, aren’t we?!

Jesus said if we let our light shine before people, they’ll praise our Heavenly Father. Why? Because if they know what we’re naturally like, they’ll realize that we can only live for God by His grace – that our light is His light – that our works are His works – done in us and through us. So they’ll praise our Father in Heaven, and not His children who just exhibit a family likeness!

So, what do these salt and light metaphors teach us? Three things, at least:

First, there is a fundamental difference between Christians and non-Christians, between the church and the world. Jesus said they are as different as light and darkness – as different as salt and decay. Jesus’ words assume that Christians are different, and He calls us to be different!

Secondly, we need to accept the responsibility this difference puts on us. We must be what we are. We are salt, and we must keep our saltiness. We are light, and we must let our light shine – and not hide it in any way! Not by sin, not by compromise, not by laziness, and not by fear! For we have Jesus Christ, His Gospel, His ideals, and His power – and Jesus Christ is all this dark and rotten world needs!

And thirdly, we need to see our Christian responsibility as twofold. The function of salt is mostly negative: it prevents decay. The function of light is positive: it lights up the darkness. So Jesus calls on His disciples to exert a double influence on the world around us: a negative influence by arresting its decay; and a positive influence by bringing light into the world’s darkness. It’s one thing to stop the spread of evil; it’s another to promote the spread of truth and goodness.

We can’t blame unsalted meat for going bad. It can’t do anything else. The real question to ask is, “Where is the salt?” And you can’t blame the world for being dark. That’s all it knows. And since darkness, by definition, is the absence of light, again the real question is, “Where is the light?”

Jesus calls us to share His Gospel – and to live in a way that’s worthy of His Gospel. Neither talking nor living can be a substitute for the other. The world needs both! It’s bad, and it needs salt; it’s dark, and it needs light. Our Christian calling is to be both. Jesus Christ said so, and that should be reason enough!

May He give us the courage to be faithful to our calling!


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