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SALT AND LIGHT Matthew 5:13-20

The town of Rye in East Sussex is like a city on a hill. It rises from the plain and is visible for miles. Looming above Romney Marsh it is almost an island left high and dry after the sea retreated. Proud and bold, the square church tower of St Mary’s is visible to all. The road winds past irrigation canals and flocks of grazing sheep until suddenly the hill is no more, for you are at the very foot of it. From its heights you view the lives of miniature people moving about beneath you. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. When Jesus used that description he would have been thinking of the small towns and villages of Galilee or Judaea which were on higher ground. They would have been easy for travellers on foot or beasts of burden to spot. The climb up to them would have been much more strenuous than these days when we can drive up hills with very little effort!

Picture Language with effect
Jesus used the image of a hill-top town to illustrate what he expected of his followers. He used the image of salt in a similar way. Perhaps coming from the Sermon on the Mount, we now describe someone as ‘The salt of the earth’: someone who is loving and kind in a quiet and modest way. They may never be great or famous but they do so much good that’s how we like to think of them. The poet Shelley described one of his friends, Leigh Hunt, as: one of those happy souls/Which are the salt of the earth, and without whom/This world would smell like what it is – a tomb. I’m not sure I’d want to be known as simply someone who stopped the world smelling so badly, but Shelley had a point! He lived, as did Jesus centuries before, in a time before refrigeration had been invented. The value of salt was not just in making food more palatable but in preserving meat from going bad. It is important for us to understand the impact of Jesus’ saying in his day. Light in his day was from flames on torches or lamps, not from electricity. Salt in his day was as much for preservation as taste. It was also expensive. So being salt and light was something noticeable, precious and necessary.

The Sermon on the Mount
You could say that the Sermon on the Mount is light and salt in its own way! Matthew says that Jesus went up a mountain and was joined by his disciples for a teaching session. Matthew’s points out that Jesus is like the new Moses, giving God’s instruction from Mt Sinai. Jesus’ teaching is itself something that throws light on faith and right behaviour. Jesus’ teaching is itself something that preserves faith from becoming stagnant or rotten. Jesus’ was so different in his teaching, so radical, that many thought he was trying to throw out all that they were taught before and tried to follow. The Law and the Prophets made up most of the scriptures that his people took to be holy. ‘You have not understood me rightly if you think that I’m trying to abolish our Bible,’ he declared. ‘What I’m trying to do is show you how to fulfil the law.’ Older translations may be familiar to some of you: ‘not one jot or tittle’ of the law shall pass away. Hebrew scribes were meticulous as they copied down their sacred scriptures, even to the point of making sure that the smallest little serif or punctuation mark was correct. So Jesus was saying that the tiniest detail of the law must not be changed. Yet he himself seems to have broken the Sabbath law when he gleaned the grain and healed the sick on the Sabbath, for instance. So what do we make of that?

The answer to this problem lies in the different meaning the Jews gave to the word 'law'. First there are the Ten Commandments, the very basis of morality, yet quite vague in their application to specific cases. The process of interpretation began in the first five books of the Old Testament, which are mainly concerned with worship in the Temple, and who might, and might not, be admitted. Traditional interpretations of the commandments continued in the time of Jesus, and were later written down in the Mishnah and the Talmud. For instance, writing more than two letters with ink on paper is work, and forbidden on the Sabbath; but you may write as much as you wish in the sand! Putting a dressing on a wound is allowed, but not if there is any medicine on the dressing. It's this rigid application of the law to specific cases which Jesus fought against. He said he'd come to fulfil the law, to go to the heart of it; and the heart of it is love. Nothing can change the call to love God and love our neighbours. So if the rigid interpretation of the law went against mercy, justice or love, then the interpretation was wrong.

So how are we to understand Jesus’ saying about salt and light? What did he mean in the first place? Tom Wright suggests that Jesus’ challenge was not simply an agenda for his followers at the time or the Church of the future. It was a challenge to the Israel of his day to return to being what they were supposed to be. They were called to be the light of the world. God wanted to bring justice and mercy to all the nations through the people he had so carefully taught and nurtured. But the nation as a whole was letting the Roman occupation turn them sour and dim their light. They had to find a new way.

Matthew compiled his gospel at a tricky time in the life of the early Church. His own particular concern was that Christians from a Jewish background and those from a Gentile one were beginning to separate. He desperately wanted to preserve unity, so he put together a way of telling the story and teachings of Jesus that showed how connected Jesus was to his Jewish heritage in order to keep Jewish Christians on board. But he also tried to show that there was a higher morality, a deeper truth which the Gentile believers would be able to accept.

Non-Christians like Gandhi have recognised the higher morality of the Sermon on the Mount and sought to live by its light and life. Following Christ is not easy and we live in a complex world. We have to apply our brains to working out what the loving this is to do, and then work hard at putting love into practice. We imitate the love which shines from the heart of Jesus. So we ourselves become an unselfconscious example of goodness, the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We are to value our heritage and try and live in a way that is not so much about rule-keeping but about the spirit of those rules. Our role in society is preserve it from going bad. Our role in the Church is to help the light to be seen more clearly by those around.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith