13“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. 14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
What I am Learning
This follows on to the reading from last week in which Jesus turns the honor system upside down. By doing so, Jesus was proposing a deep transformation in the way his sisters and brothers understood and organized their society. His hearers would, I think, have seen him as a change agent in the culture.
In this reading, he quickly asserts that being a change agent is not just his job, but one that belongs to all his disciples. He does this with the images of salt and light.
Salt was used as a catalyzing agent in the manure they used for cooking. Once the salt lost “its saltiness”, that is, it’s capacity to help the fire burn it was thrown away. Jesus is saying that to be his disciple is to be a change agent in society.
Light for first century people is not just what comes from a candle, the stars, the moon or the sun. Light emanates from the heart of a person and shines through their eyes and through their life. When one’s heart is centered in God’s love the light brings blessing. When it is centered on anger or hatred it brings a curse. Jesus is telling them not to hide their light, but to allow others to see it – not so that we can be smarty pants and self-righteous people, but so that others may be drawn to God’s love.
But Jesus’ way of transforming is not really to bring something new and throw away the deep traditions of the People of Israel. Jesus is faithful to God’s covenant with the People of Israel. But this covenant was more than rule keeping and micromanaging the lives of other people, as the Pharisees sometimes did. The purpose of that covenant was that the Hebrew people would “be a blessing to all the nations of the world.” (Genesis 12:1-4) Jesus has learned from the depth of Israel’s tradition – his work as a change agent, as a catalyst, arises from the heart of the Jewish faith.
From the center of that depth, he sees that many of the leaders of Israel, including the Pharisees, have kept the rules but have missed the point. You can keep all the rules you want, but “if you do not have love you are a noisy gong or a clanging symbol” as Paul says in Corinthians.
Nor can we be faithful disciples if we merely study the truth-telling of former prophets without engaging our communities in the truth that must be spoken today.
Remember again that the “kingdom of heaven” is Matthew’s way of saying “the kingdom of God” which is God’s way for humans to live re-establishing itself on the earth.
We are called to be change agents because we participate in God’s way of mutuality as salt makes the fire burn, as light transforms the darkness.
Yet neither of these images are overpowering. They produce change, they make things happen, but not in a way that dominates. Salt helps the manure to burn better, but it would burn on its own. Light helps us to see the room, but does not make the room from nothing. There is something fragile about both of these images, yet we need both for life.
I think Jesus encourages us to remember our own frailty even as we take our small part in the ensalting and enlightening of the world. And to hope not that people see us, but see the glory of God’s love for and in everyone.