Salt of the Earth: Light of the World
Matthew 5: 13 — 17
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
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:
(Isaiah 42: 6 — 7)
(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.
Jesus rounds off this section with one of his well-known "one liners":
A modern translation, seeking to emphasise the intense meaning of our Lord's words has expressed them in this way:
Now for some quotes from traditional scholarship, on verse 16.
Secondly: Adam Clarke
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):
Clarke then closes with this comment:
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.
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