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When Christians perceive a great evil looming over society, we sometimes feel as if we must crusade against it. We conduct marches and hand out educational tracts. We wield politics and the media against our foe. All of this—the marches, the tracts, the politics, the media—we credit to Matthew 5:13-20.
“Jesus said that we must be the salt of the earth!” We chant. “We must be the light of the earth!”
But Jesus never commanded this of us.
Our sermons, commentaries, and summaries of Matthew 5:13-20 reveal that we read the passage out of context. How? For one, this passage is referenced much more often than the scriptures that come before and after it. Many people have trouble identifying the context of this passage. Which scriptures come immediately before? Which come immediately after?
The Beatitudes come before this scripture and Christ’s examination of the law (“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder…”) comes after. As we learned last week, the Beatitudes examine God’s character. We learn that God comforts those who mourn, gives the earth to the meek, rewards the merciful with mercy, and calls the peacemakers his children.
Nowhere in the Beatitudes does it say that God blesses those who raise their weapons in his name. In fact, the Beatitudes explicitly promise the opposite of this: God blesses those who are persecuted and who suffer for the sake of righteousness.
But isn’t the protestor persecuted when the world lashes back at their protest? Doesn’t the politician suffer for the sake of righteousness when he is met with slander for enforcing what is right, true, and good?
These questions only show that we misunderstand the definition of righteousness. Human beings cannot be righteous—nor can we understand what righteousness is. The only righteousness that we can reveal and understand is Christ’s righteousness, and this righteousness only appears by mirroring God’s character into the world.
Does the crusader mirror God’s character into the world?
Christ did not lead protests. He did not fight for “righteousness.” Instead, he withdrew to Galilee, he turned away from the crowds, and he spoke with his disciples. The crusader, then, reveals our own character, not God’s character. Being persecuted means to suffer because one has mirrored Christ into the world. But the crusader is not suffering because they mirror Christ; the crusader is suffering the consequence of forcing himself upon the world.
As Christians, we must be careful when we read the Bible. Jesus says, “you are the salt of the earth.” This is very different than “you should be the salt of the earth.” We do not have to try to be the salt of the earth because we are the salt of the earth. This does not change if we do good things or if we do bad things. In Matthew 5:13-20, Jesus is not lauding the church; he is identifying a problem within it.
People who have never travelled to the Middle East commonly mistake the salt in this passage as a seasoning. “Christianity,” many commentaries conclude, “is a pinch of seasoning that brings out the flavor of a dish.” But Jesus lived in the desert. Salt is not considered to be the seasoning of choice in the desert. Salt makes people thirsty and, in a desert, water is scarce.
In Jesus’ culture, salt was more commonly thought of as a preservative; salt prevented food from rotting quickly. When Jesus says that we are the salt of the earth, he doesn’t mean that we are the flavor. He means that our purpose is to slow the steady decay of Creation which was begun by the fall. But the salt has lost its saltiness.
Anyone who knows anything about salt would be baffled by this claim. Salt is one of the most stable compounds in the world! When salt is placed in water, the water becomes salty. Salt without saltiness is just as ridiculous as lighting a lamp for the sole purpose of hiding it beneath a basket!
We light a lamp to see the room around us! In the same way, Jesus says that we should let our light shine so that people can see the Father through us.
Now, if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that this command is terrifying. We have not done anything good! We don’t want to show people the way we live because the way we live does not glorify God!
Human beings bringing shame to God? Human beings hiding away from the world and robbing God of his glory? This is just as inconceivable as salt losing its saltiness or a lamp being placed beneath a basket!
Jesus’ disciples are Jewish. When Jesus says, “let your light shine before others, so that they might see your good works and give glory to your father who is in heaven,” their first thought is “I have broken the law!” Jesus is not changing the subject when he begins to talk about the law; he is addressing their concern.
After all, every human being has broken the law; we have all lost our saltiness. How can our saltiness be restored? Should we get rid of the law?
“I have not come to abolish the law,” Jesus said. The solution is not to change the law; the law is not the problem. The heavens and the earth were created through the law. The law is the revelation of God’s character and, as we learned before, the revelation of God is woven into all of creation. Eliminating the law would result in the destruction of Creation.
Should we lower the demands of the law, then? Should we make the commandments easier for us to follow?
No, this solution does not work, either. “Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus says. Changing one’s expectations of salt will not restore the salt’s saltiness.
Human beings are the problem.
1) God created human beings to be the light of the world. Our purpose is to mirror him into creation.
2) When human beings turned to sin, the reason for our existence was eliminated. We were no longer able to fulfill our purpose. In fact, we began to lead all of creation away from God, resulting in the gradual deterioration of creation.
3) Now, all of Creation groans because it wishes to see God and worship him. We are the only thing that keeps it from doing so.
4) To counteract the sin eating away at Creation, God gives the law to Israel. The law prevents the world from rotting faster, but it cannot halt decay altogether. Israel is expected to act as a model for the nations; teaching the rest of the world how to slow the sin that eats away at them.
If we try to keep the law by lowering the standard, we will not keep the world from decaying. This defeats the purpose of the law.
Christ is the only solution to the problem
Christ completes the law. The law cannot solve the problem of original sin; it can only slow the consequences. Only through Christ can the problem be resolved. This is why Christ speaks of both salt and light.
Salt preserves; light reveals the truth.
Christ is the light.
As human beings, we need his light. We are not the light, but the lampstands that the light is placed upon (an image repeated in Revelation).
The law is like Christ’s clothing—it is too big for us. We can try to fulfill the law, but our fallen nature makes this an impossible task. Like a child wearing the clothes of an older sibling, we may try to change the clothing to better fit us. Alteration is fine for clothes, but not for the law!
The law fits Christ perfectly. When he wears it, we see the way it is supposed to look. We cannot wear the law, but we can do what we were created to do: to welcome his rule, to invite him to make his home in us, and to allow him, the light, to shine forever in us. Through his light, the world sees God. How the world responds to God, however, is another question entirely.