Are We the Salt of the Earth and the Light of the World?


You are the salt of the earth. . . You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. Matthew 5:13-14 (NLT)
Are salt and light good descriptions of Christians in our Western world today? Salt is helpful. What would McDonald’s fries be without it? Light is also helpful. Don’t drive without some! Salt is also essential. Salt was used extensively as a preservative in the days of Jesus. Additionally, our bodies need a certain amount of salt to survive. Light, of course, is also essential for life. Are we essential?
Does anyone consider the Church to be essential in today’s society? Would people notice if our church closed, or indeed all churches closed? Would anyone notice if Christians kept their Christianity to themselves? There are those who would prefer that be the case. Christians are non-essential in their eyes.
Jesus followers were not considered to be essential when Jesus first spoke those words “you are the salt of the earth, . . .  you are light of the world.” “You,” as in “As for you, who are persecuted on my account” from a previous verse. Jesus followers in the early days were considered to be disposable, even dangerous by the authorities. To such maligned and disposable people Jesus says “you are salt, you are light.” You are essential.
However, though essential, there is a danger of becoming tasteless salt, or perhaps a better way of putting it, foolish salt:
“You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it salty again? . . . Matthew 5:13 (NLT)
The Greek word behind “lost its flavour” is a word used in antiquity for “being foolish.” Indeed, it seems that only here in this verse might it mean “tasteless.” Perhaps, therefore, we should not lose the original meaning behind the word as we hear the words of Jesus. Something like, “You are the salt of the earth, but you can be foolish salt.” Indeed, Jesus would go on to talk about doing something foolish:
No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father. Matthew 5:15-16 (NLT)
The religious authorities in Jesus day could certainly be described as “foolish salt”, their deeds were not shining in a way that would bring glory to God. They tried to make Jesus out to be the one who was a fool. After all, Jesus did terrible nasty things like heal people on a Sabbath:
Then Jesus went over to their synagogue, 10 where he noticed a man with a deformed hand. The Pharisees asked Jesus, “Does the law permit a person to work by healing on the Sabbath?” (They were hoping he would say yes, so they could bring charges against him.) Matthew 12:9-10 (NLT)
Jesus then made it plain who the fools were.
And he answered, “If you had a sheep that fell into a well on the Sabbath, wouldn’t you work to pull it out? Of course you would. 12 And how much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Yes, the law permits a person to do good on the Sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Hold out your hand.” So the man held out his hand, and it was restored, just like the other one! 14 Then the Pharisees called a meeting to plot how to kill Jesus. Matthew 12:11-14 (NLT)
The religious authorities were supposed be salt and light, but they were being foolish by being lawyers instead of lovers. They were often full of condemnation rather than being helpful. Though they would condemn Jesus for breaking a law on a Sabbath, they were plotting, on that very same Sabbath day, to kill. How foolish! In the religious leaders the salt had lost its taste, it had become foolish.
“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. Matthew 5:13 (NRSV)
Jesus asks how salt that has lost its saltiness can be made salty again. Technically, salt can not lose its saltiness and that is the point. It should be an impossible thing, such a foolish thing, for the people of God, having been called to be God’s people, having been rescued from Egypt, having been brought into a land they could call home, having been given the law to give them a better way, and having been given the privilege of walking with God Who remained faithful despite their failings – it should be impossible for them to not be salt and light. Why then, are the religious leaders, who should be leading the way in being salt and light, so filled with spite and condemnation when they are the people of God who have experienced such love and grace? That should be impossible.
It should be impossible for us, who are Christ followers, who benefit from the example and teaching of Jesus, who benefit from the death and resurrection of Jesus, who benefit from gift of the Holy Spirit and the gift of God’s Word, who have experienced forgiveness, who have experienced the love and grace of God – it should be impossible for us to not live love filled, grace filled lives. It should be impossible for us to not be good salt and shining light.
So what does it look like to be good salt and shining light? Jesus will go on tell us in the remainder of the Sermon on the Mount. There we will learn what it looks like to let our  “good deeds shine out for all to see” (verse 16). As we look to the Sermon on the Mount in the weeks to come, it is important that we recognize that we are put in a right relationship with God, not by our own efforts to be salty enough salt, or bright enough lights, but by the grace of God. But as salt and light, we can become ineffective, we can be foolish. In the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, we will learn, not what followers of Jesus must do to impress God, but what followers of Jesus look like when God uses them to make an impression on the world.
Society may think that Jesus followers are not essential. But Jesus does! Society may say that Jesus followers are disposable, perhaps even dangerous. Jesus says we are salt and light, we are essential. If people don’t agree with Jesus on that, perhaps we are either being foolish salt, or we are stuck in the saltshaker.

Kicked to the Curb? (Blessed Are The . . .)

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the . . . ” Matthew 5:1-3 (NRSV)

If we were to come up with our own beatitudes what might we come up with? We might say “blessed are the rich and famous, for they have no worries.” Or, “blessed are those with many Instagram followers for they will be popular and never be lacking for friends.” Or, “blessed are the Canadians, for they typically receive decent medical care.” Being quite shy, as a teenager I would have said “blessed are the outgoing, for they will not be overlooked.”

If people in various times and places could come up with beatitudes what might they come up with? Perhaps “blessed are the slaveowners, for they themselves are not slaves.” Or, “blessed are the males, for they will have more opportunities, earn more money, and will never face sexual harassment.” Or “blessed are the white people, for they will enjoy privilege.” Or, “blessed are the straight people, for they will not get beaten up or put to death for their sexuality.” Or, “blessed are the atheists, for they will not be shunned in their academic circles.” Or, “blessed are the religious, for they will not be shunned in their families.”

Going back to the days of the New Testament, if the people listening to Jesus were to come up with beatitudes what would they come up with? They might say things like “blessed are the Romans in Rome, for they will collect taxes from Jews in Judea.” Or “blessed are those who have the power and authority to crucify others, for they themselves will not be crucified and will have control.” Or, “blessed are those who cozy up to the Romans, for they need not fear being hung on a cross.” With such in mind, let us hear the beatitudes Jesus shared: 

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:3-10 (NRSV)

Keeping in mind that the first hearers of these beatitudes were downcast and grieved at being occupied by the Romans, meekly putting up with the status quo, experiencing the injustice of being controlled by an unrighteous and often unmerciful empire, being asked to mix loyalty to God with loyalty to the emperor, and under threat of violence and persecution, we could summarize these beatitudes as “blessed are those who get kicked to the curb and look to God for help, for God will take care of them.” That would resonate with a people kicked to the curb by the Romans.

In that context, the beatitudes of Jesus were reminders that things were not as they seemed. It seemed like the powerful were the fortunate ones, but in reality those who look to God to act in power are the blessed ones. It might seem like the Romans are in charge, but in fact, God is. While “Caesar is lord” was a popular saying, it would later become evident that Jesus is Lord. Indeed the very symbol of Roman power, the cross, was to become a symbol of God’s love for the weak. While it seemed like the Romans were the blessed ones, truly God’s people were the blessed ones as they looked to, and trusted in, Him. Blessed are those who are kicked to the curb, who look to God for help.

As we consider the idea of “blessed are the kicked to the curb,” there is a twist:

11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:11-12 (NRSV)

It is not “blessed are you when the Romans persecute you because you are Jewish,” but “blessed are you when people persecute you because you follow me, Jesus.”  Also, when we consider the persecution of the prophets, the identity of “they,” the persecutors, is not the usual list of Israel’s enemies, the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, or Romans. The prophets were persecuted by their own people. God’s people in Jesus day were being kicked to the curb by their own people, the religious elites. Jesus will go on to contrast His way with the way of the religious leaders in what has come to be known as the Sermon on the Mount. It might seem that the fortunate ones are those who are able to attain religious perfection according to the standards of those who think they are perfect. But in fact the blessed ones are those who look to God’s perfect love. It turns out that you are not in a good situation if you are depending on your own ability at being good. You are blessed if you look to the goodness of God, if you are aware of your need of His grace. Blessed are the poor in spirit.

Jesus teaches us in the beatitudes that things are not as they seem. It might seem that the powerful Romans are the blessed ones, the ones who can lord their power over the weak, but in fact, Jesus is Lord. It might seem like the religious leaders are the blessed ones, the ones who think they can earn salvation and shun everyone who cannot, but in fact Jesus is Saviour. Both these point to the cross, where the political and religious elites, the so-called “blessed ones,” combined forces to put Jesus to death. The death of Jesus seems to confirm that the Roman and religious leaders are the blessed ones. However, the resurrection of Jesus shows a different reality. The blessed are those who look to God. The blessed are those who look to Jesus, the Lord and Saviour. Blessed are those who are kicked to the curb and look to God for help.

Jesus taught about the Good Samaritan, the outsider willing to help someone left for dead at the side of the road. The so called “blessed ones,” the religious leaders crossed the road to avoid him. They were on their way to the temple and so needed to stay pure to stay blessed. Or so they thought. The one kicked to the curb was the blessed one when the Good Samaritan went above and beyond to be helpful. Have you been kicked to the curb? God is the ultimate Good Samaritan. Cry out, He’ll cross the road.

Learning From the Master Learner

Jesus is arguably the greatest teacher that ever taught. His teaching was recognized as profound by those who first heard it:

Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29 for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. Matthew 7:28-29 (NRSV)

The teaching of Jesus continues to be revered in our day, by Christians and non-Christians alike. The impact of Jesus’ teaching is undeniable, on both individuals and societies.

Neil Peart was arguably one of the greatest rock drummers ever. The one known as “The Professor” said this on why he took drum lessons despite his already high level of drumming proficiency: “What is a master but a master student?” (Rolling Stone Magazine 2012). Was Jesus, the master teacher, also a master student? While the Bible tends to focus on the teaching of Jesus, there is one passage which speaks to his learning:

Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43 When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44 Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. Luke 2:41-47 (NRSV emphasis added)

Before Jesus taught, he learned. There are two things to take note of.

First, Jesus went to the right place and the right people to further his growth and learning. He went to the temple, he sat under those who taught things about God. According to the custom of that time and place, Jesus should have been focused on learning carpentry from Joseph. No doubt most his days were taken up with learning that trade. However, even from a young age, Jesus had a sense of a much deeper calling:

When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” 49 He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Luke 2:48-49 (NRSV emphasis added)

Yes, Jesus would have called Joseph “Dad.” And yes, Jesus would have been learning carpentry from him. However, in being in his “Father’s house,” and in learning things about God, Jesus showed his awareness of being someone special, of being called to something special. Jesus, being the Son of God, was called to do what no one else in history could do; be Lord and Saviour.

Do we know our identity in, and calling from, God? We may immediately think of our vocation or volunteering. We may have matched our passions and gifts with what we do with our time. There is a calling more basic and fundamental than that. We are called to follow Jesus. We are called to be his disciples, a word which simply means ‘student.’ If Jesus, being aware of his calling and identity as the Son of God, went to the Temple, we, as disciples of Jesus, will want to go to Jesus. Perhaps you thought I was going to say we go to church. Yes, that is part of it, but even in church we focus on learning from Jesus.

Second, Jesus engaged in conversation, asking questions and giving answers:

. . . they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. Luke 2:46-47 (NRSV)

There is a theological question we must answer so that we can better understand this Bible passage. Was Jesus, since he was God the Son, and therefore potentially knew everything already, showing off his knowledge? Or, was Jesus actually engaged in learning? While Jesus is fully divine, he is also fully human. Bible passages will sometimes put the focus on one or the other. In this passage, the emphasis is on the humanity of Jesus. Note the verses immediately preceding and following this passage of Scripture:

And the Child continued to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him. Luke 2:40 NASB

And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” Luke 2:52 NASB

Before Jesus taught, he learned. He asked questions, he dug deeper. He gave answers, giving opportunity for correction. This was how people learned from the rabbis in those days. The teachers were not annoyed with the answers of Jesus, as they would be if he was coming off as a ‘know-it-all,’ rather, they were amazed. Before Jesus taught with great wisdom, he learned with great wisdom.

Are we asking good questions? There is never a dumb question. But there are questions that are are more wise to ask than others. For example, I have often been asked whom Cain married. Since the Bible only told us about Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel up to the point of Cain going off and getting married, whom did he marry? This is not a dumb question. However, a better question, a wise question to ask is: “what is the nature of, and God’s vision for, the Bible?” When we find the answer to that question, the question about Cain goes away. In a nutshell, the Bible is given to teach us what we need to know about ourselves, God, and our relationship with God. It is not given to tell us everything. Are we asking good questions? Are we open to correction? Do we have a teachable spirit? Sometimes this means, not adding to our understanding, but making adjustments to our understanding. Are we learning with wisdom?

Like Jesus, the master learner, we want to be in the right place to grow into our identity and calling. We want to be learning at the feet of Jesus. Like Jesus, we want to be wise learners, asking questions, digging deeper, giving space for correction.

Jesus is not just a great teacher, but being God the Son, Jesus is Lord and Saviour. Jesus is not a self-help guru! Our growing in, and learning from, Jesus is not just about living the good life. It is part and parcel of our salvation. Salvation is not just about going to heaven when we die. It is also about heaven’s influence on us now. Are we learning from the Master Learner?