Salt of the Earth: Light of the World

Ordinary 5A

Matthew 5: 13 17

Introduction

Our Lord, in the first part of Matthew 5, presented his distillation of the virtuous life he called upon his followers to pursue. Clearly he intended the occasion to demonstrate links with the Decalogue: the giving of the ten Commandments. However at the same time, he was not constricted by the former revelation, and chose to let his proclamation move forward.

The beatitudes are immediately followed by two very short sayings, which denote the degree of openness and generosity in which they are to be lived out.

Some Notes on the Text

Verse 13

Our Lord continues his address to those who have shown themselves to be his loyal followers.

"You are the salt of the earth."

 

His listeners would have felt very affirmed by that declaration. After all, salt is essential in every day life. In effect he is saying, "Your lives and your good works will be essential for the well-being of the world.

"But beware", he implies. Salt can dissolve and disappear without trace and all you are left with is the grit, which came with it. Sure it can be used on footpaths to stop people slipping, but that is hardly its original purpose. So too, unless you guard very carefully all that I am passing on to you, it will slip through your fingers without a trace, and you will have nothing distinctive to offer those who need spiritual nourishment. Then they will turn to the unspiritual or the ungodly as a substitute source of inspiration and direction. If that happens you will like the grit left after the salt has, without your noticing it, quietly disappeared.

Verses 14 and 15

Before reflecting on these verses about light, we need to understand the fulfilment of prophecy our Lord was himself aware of in his ministry.

In the prophecy of Isaiah, it is recorded:

"I the Lord, have called you to serve the cause of right; I have taken you by the hand and formed you; I have appointed you as a covenant of the people and light of the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to free captives from prison, and those who live in darkness from the dungeon:

(Isaiah 42: 6 7)

"I will make you the light of the nations, so that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth: 

(Isaiah 49: 6)

It will also help us to know that traditionally, from ancient times, the title "Light of the World" was given to the most senior and eminent rabbis. Our Lord here and now either transfers the title to his close disciples, or at least includes them within its scope. Whichever is the case, the meaning is clear. By the doctrines he is teaching and passing on to them, they were to be the means by which the light of life would be diffused throughout the universe.

Jesus, thereby, calls his disciples to share in the fulfilment of Isaiah's prophecy and be the means by which the light of his spiritual truth will be shared with all creation.

Having conferred the "Light of the Nations" title upon his infant Church, Jesus immediately emphasises what cannot be allowed to happen to this light.

First. This light is to remain always like a city on a hill; able to be seen at all times by all who wish to look and see. (They can, of course, choose not to look and see.)

Secondly, in the day-to-day comings and goings of ordinary life, this light must be present and never deliberately covered up.

Verse 16

Jesus rounds off this section with one of his well-known "one liners":

"Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven"

A modern translation, seeking to emphasise the intense meaning of our Lord's words has expressed them in this way: 

"In the same way your light must shine in the sight of all, so that, seeing your good works, they may give praise to your Father in heaven".

Now for some quotes from traditional scholarship, on verse 16.

First: Dummelow

This is not inconsistent with the command to be humble and to do good by stealth, especially as the collective good works of the Christian brotherhood as a whole are chiefly spoken of. "Our light is to shine forth though we conceal it", says St Hilary. Origen and other writers testify that the good works of Christians did more to convert the world than miracles or preaching.

Secondly: Adam Clarke

"Thus let your light shine"

As the sun is lighted up in the firmament of heaven to diffuse its light and heat freely to every inhabitant of the earth; and as the lamp is not set under the bushel, but placed upon the lamp-stand that it may give light to all in the house; thus let every follower of Christ, and especially every preacher of the Gospel, diffuse the light of heavenly knowledge, and the warmth of Divine love through the whole circle of their acquaintance.

"That they may see your good works." It is not sufficient to have light we must walk in the light, and by the light. Our whole conduct should be a perpetual comment on the doctrine we have received, and a constant exemplification of its power and truth.

We should be careful of the all too easy self-righteous trap to fall into, and interpret our Lord's teaching as a condemnation of his own people's failures. Judaism had a very wonderful care and concern for the welfare of all humanity. It faced great difficulties and Jesus ensuring his followers realise that they had better be ready to face the same. In trying to live according to the beatitudes, we can count on having much to contend with!

Clarke quotes a delightful and very helpful saying found in the Bammidbar Rabba (s. 15):

"The Israelites said to the holy blessed God, Thou commandest us to light lamps to thee; and yet thou art the Light of the world, and with thee the light dwelleth. The holy blessed God answered, I do not command this because I need light; but that you may reflect light upon me, as I have illuminated you: that the people may say, Behold, how the Israelites illustrate him, who illuminates them in the sight of the whole earth."

Clarke then closes with this comment:

Real Christians are the children of God - they are partakers of his holy and happy nature: they should ever be concerned for their Father's honour, and endeavour so to recommend him, and his salvation, that others may be prevailed on to come to the light, and walk in it. Then God is said to be glorified, when the glorious power of his grace is manifested in the salvation of men.

Conclusion

Every follower of the Way of Jesus must reflect in their actions and speech the mind and will of God. The ancients called this the Torah, a term which come to be applied to God's Law and the Holy Scriptures embodying this. Jesus is clear and succinct if we have the right humble attitude we will be able to carry out what he has said in these few verses without any fear of drawing attention to ourselves rather than God. The Rabbis had long dealt with this issue and Jesus is entirely in harmony with that great tradition.

We close with three snippets from rabbinic literature.

  • "God shall be glorified among the Gentiles through you, but through him that doeth not that which is good. God shall be dishonoured.  (Test. Naph. 8: 4.)
  • Rabbi Simon ben Eleazar said: "When the Israelites do God's will, His name is exalted in the world. When they do not do His will, His name is, as it were, profaned in the world, as it says, And they profaned My holy name.  (Ezek. 36: 20)"
  • There is a story about Rabbi Simon ben Shetah who bought a donkey from an Ishmaelite. His students went and discovered a precious stone hanging from its neck. They said to him, "Rabbi, the blessing of the Lord makes rich". (Prov. 10: 22)    Rabbi Shetah said to them, "I bought a donkey, I did not buy a precious stone." He went and returned the stone to the Ishmaelite, who said to him, "Blessed be the God of Simon ben Shetah"

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