Salt And Light
January 24, 2016
SALT AND LIGHT
January 24th, 2016
Matthew 5:13-16 and parallels
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used the concept of salt as a metaphor to point out what kind of function his followers were to have in the world.
In the first century, salt was a precious commodity, like silver and gold. As such, it was an important article of trade. Often it came in slabs from sub-Sahara Africa, brought across deserts by camel caravans, by boat across the Mediterranean, and by road to all of the various bazaars and marketplaces in Europe and Asia.
Those who traded with salt became rich, and because salt was so valuable, many armed conflicts were waged over the harvest, transportation, toll roads, and possession of salt.
Salt can be used as a cleanser, a mild sterilizer or antiseptic, it can be used to treat sting and bite relief, added as an ingredient to fertilizer.
However, it was commonly used for two major purposes – as it is to this day. First, because of a lack of refrigeration, salt was used to preserve food, especially since fresh food spoils quickly given the heat in the Middle East.
This was especially true of meats, but other foods, like vegetables, could be placed in salt or pickled in a brine solution in order to preserve them. Salt was even used to preserve human remains … for example in the mummification process in Egypt.
The second major use of salt was as a flavour enhancer. Salt makes food taste better.
We can find Matthew’s record of Jesus’ teaching also recorded in Mark and Luke, at least in part.
Have salt within yourselves and be at peace with one another.
You are the salt of the earth.
In both Mark and Matthew, Jesus explicitly mentions that “salt” is in reference to his followers. In Mark, the salt is to be within, to reside within them, giving them flavour and making them people who are at peace with each other. In Matthew, believers themselves are in fact the salt that is to flavour the earth, in essence, be flavourful to whomever they come in contact with.
In Luke, the reader is left to make that connection between the salt and themselves on their own (but it is implied in the statement, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear”).
In all three synoptic gospels, Jesus makes the same major point when it comes to the salt.
Salt is good,
but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you seasons it?
But if salt has lost its taste, how will its saltiness be restored?
Salt is good,
but if salt has lost its taste, how will its saltiness be restored?
Once could take issue with Jesus’ words, in that salt, in the form of sodium chloride (NaCl), does not lose its flavour. In other words, salt never becomes un-salty.
The only way that salt can become less salty is if it is thinned, that is, if it is combined with some kind of impurity, and so there is less and less of the salt and more and more of the additive in the mix.
This would be very similar to adding impurities into a drug, cutting a drug with other ingredients, to make it less potent. If you look at the active ingredient in many drugs, it’s actually very small. The rest is filler.
So Jesus is speaking about salt that has become so thinned out with all kinds of additives and impurities, that there is hardly any salt in the mix at all.
Jesus continues, as recorded in Matthew and Luke:
It (the salt) is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and walked on by men.
It is good neither for the land nor the dunghill. Men throw it away.
He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
A pile of impurities with just a very small bit of salt in it, will not add saltiness to a dish. A small pinch of salt will add nothing of value to a pile of manure used for fertilizer – you might as well not throw it on. Salt, that precious and expensive commodity, when it has been cut by further additives to the point that it no longer has a positive function, has truly become useless and worthless.
The whole idea that the mixture will be thrown away, is a sign of judgment. What Jesus is pointing out to his followers, that they will inevitably influence the world for good. If they don’t, they may not be true followers of his.
With this word picture, Jesus is really warning his listeners, not to allow themselves to become worthless to others around them … neither good for preserving, possibly unity or peace, nor good for flavouring, that is encouraging, supporting, helping, binding up wounds, exemplifying the love of God. Jesus warns them that they cannot end up being of no value, no help, no encouragement, no good to others.
With regard to the impurities, it has been said that any choice on the believer’s part which blurs the distinction between them and the rest of the world is a step in the wrong direction. In the past, this meant drawing up a huge list of don’ts. In fact, years ago, Christians defined themselves more by what they didn’t do than by what they did, in the hope that this would make them stand out in the crowd. And to a certain extent it did.
For example, I think it’s quite noticeable when a person doesn’t swear, especially in a work environment.
The two paintings by Norman Rockwell, the first from 1951 and the second from 1959, demonstrates that saying grace in public, even back then, spoke to those who saw it in a positive way. On the other hand, the wife and children who make their way to church in their Sunday best, seem somewhat aloof because dad didn’t join them.
The problem with a focus on the things that Christians do not do, was that many of these external difference … not shopping or playing sports on Sunday, women only wearing dresses and not chewing gum, not playing cards, and not dancing, or making sure to dress up to go to church, or whatever … generally did not make a person more (or less) caring toward others.
Personally, I think that the positive difference that should be seen in the world, is spotted to a much greater extent by what followers of Jesus do than what they don’t do.
The real kicker in what Jesus is saying, is that there seems to be no way of reforming a person who has become flavourless. There seems to be no way of getting rid of all the impurities and additives that have made that person unproductive or useless in the first placed.
Jesus not only used the picture of salt to describe his followers, but he also used the picture of light. In Matthew, Jesus’ words are recorded immediately after his words about the salt, but that isn’t the case in Mark and Luke, who record Jesus words in two different places in their gospels (in Mark we move from chapter 8 to chapter 4, and in Luke we move from chapter 14 to chapter 8).
In fact, in Luke, Jesus is recorded as having used this metaphor at two different occasions (Luke 8 and in Luke 11). Whatever the case, Matthew is quite correct to link them because the light metaphor points out something very similar to the salt metaphor.
The main point is found in all three synoptic gospels:
And he (Jesus) said to them, "Is a lamp brought in to be put under a bowl, or under a bed, and not on a stand?”
A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bowl, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.
After lighting a lamp, no one will cover it with a jar or put it under a bed, but will place it on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light.
Jesus made the very same point in another context, as recorded in Luke 11:
No one lights a lamp and puts it in a place where it is hidden, or under a bowl. Instead, he places it on its stand, so that those who enter may see the light.
A lamp is to allow a person to see at night when it’s dark out. Why in the world would you light a lamp, only to cover it up with something that would make it dark again? This would be completely counterproductive and therefore nonsensical.
But now we find that Jesus gives us two applications to this parable, this metaphor. In Matthew, Jesus points out that, just like the salt, his followers are the light – and their purpose is to bring light into the lives of others through the good works they do.
While not stated outright, I do think this point is actually implied in Mark and Luke as well.
You are the light of the world.
… Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your heavenly Father.
Just as it would be nonsensical to place light in a place where it can’t shine in the darkness, so it makes no sense that Jesus’ followers do not actually reflect in their lives the things most important to Jesus.
If it smells like a fire, looks like a fire, crackles like a fire, warms like a fire, and burns stuff up like a fire … I think we can be pretty sure that it is a fire.
But if it only looks like a fire and crackles like a fire, but doesn’t produce heat … we may be looking at something on a screen instead of the real thing.
Or if it throws off heat but there are no real flames or whatever is glowing is not being burned up, you probably are looking at an electric fireplace.
Just like a light actually makes things brighter so that we can see what’s going on … so Jesus’ followers should give off light, even though they may not literally glow.
Beginning in the fourth century, Jesus, his disciples, or those who were raised to sainthood in the church were depicted with a halo. As a boy, I thought that there was a literal bright light around their heads.
Of course there wasn’t. The real light is found in what Jesus calls “good works.” In Jesus’ life, what did these good works comprise of? For one, he brought light to individuals who were considered beyond redemption by the religious leaders of his day, told them that they were important to God and that God loved them, and called them to fully turn to God and reform their lives.
His good works also consisted of bringing hope to the hopeless, healing to the hurting, acceptance to the unacceptable, direction to the lost, and the willing submission to torture and death for the sake of others. His were radical acts of kindness.
He was an unmistakable light to those living in darkness. And I am convinced that Jesus thought that the same should be true of his followers. They too should carry the message of God’s love and forgiveness, and as we read in 1 Peter, that they will do this with gentleness and respect (1 Pet 3:15).
Jesus’ followers should also bring healing instead of hurt, peace instead of conflict, support instead of indifference, forgiveness instead of bitterness, and the like. And when these good deeds, or others like them, are practiced, then they are just as evident to those touched by them as Jesus’ were.
Notice also, that Jesus’ concern is not that his followers would stand out for their own sake, but that those who were the recipients of or witnesses to the good deeds, would give glory to God, their heavenly Father. In other words, just as Jesus pointed out that his actions and words were guided by God, so his followers should as well.
In Mark and Luke, Jesus has a second application to the metaphor of light. Here, much like the parable of the salt, Jesus warns his followers that there will be consequences if they should not be a light, because another light will expose their true nature.
For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open.
For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.
In the second passage in Luke 11, Jesus also warns his listeners:
See to it that the light within you is not darkness.
And in Mark 4, Jesus ends with the same warning that he did after the salt metaphor (as recorded in Luke):
If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.
So follow my line of reasoning for a minute. For one, why should I give up anything that I worked for and just give it to another person? Why shouldn’t I, and my immediate family, be the only ones who benefits from what I get paid to do?
And why should I be the person who has to reflect the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control? Will that not mean that I will be a door mat and others will take advantage of my kindness?
And why should I be the first one to forgive? The first one to say “I’m sorry”? The other person is more at fault than I am – they should be the one to take the first step. What kind of dope would I be, if I am this do-gooder, only to feed the entitlement that people already have?
Why should I pray for my enemies? I don’t even pray for myself. Why should I bless those who curse me? What kind of chump would I be?
No, no. Instead, let me live for myself, in the belief that I have hell-fire insurance on account of Jesus. Let me continue to ask myself the question, “How little can I do and still be considered Jesus’ follower?”
If that is what I think, then truly I do not have ears to hear what Jesus is saying.
So Jesus uses both metaphors, salt and light, to point out what his followers are to be. At the same time, Jesus uses both parables to warn his followers that to be un-salty and “dark” simply does not make any sense. In other words, Jesus warns them not to pretend.
Jesus is telling them, and by extension, those down the millennia who call themselves followers of Jesus, to help others sacrificially. In other words, our actions should cost us – and not just be a minor inconvenience for us.
So as I was writing this, I thought to myself. Man, how hard is that to live out? I mean, I don’t think there is anything radically different about me that would make me stand out.
I’m not a bad guy, I love my family, I try to be conscientious in my recycling, I help out my neighbours when I know they need help, I give to charity, I volunteer, … but honestly, I know a ton of people who never go to church who do the same. In fact, some of them do considerably more.
So how am I salt and light in the world? I think the only difference is that I try to go the extra mile. I try to forgive those who have hurt me, and not to carry a grudge – although I have to confess that I sometimes avoid people who are hurtful. I try not to let my own insecurities short-circuit my ability to deal positive with others. I try to extend kindness to everyone. I try to keep my language in check. I try to be as honest about things as I possibly can be. I am open about my faith.
I definitely don’t consider myself to be someone special, or as a shining example of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, but I do notice that in those regards I am a bit different from my siblings.
And I think we, you and I, need greater strength and consistency in being light and salt in the mundane, daily events of our lives.
Now let me quickly add a note here for all of you who are perfectionists or who do little more than beat up on yourselves. Jesus is not talking about perfection here, saying that if you’re not perfect, you will be tossed aside by God. Salt only adds flavour to a meal, it doesn’t cook the meal, dish it up, or serve it.
Jesus may have perfectly lived out the ethic he is teaching about in the Sermon on the Mount, but none of us can do likewise. We are full of issues and short-comings and flaws and inconsistencies and insecurities.
I think the real issue is when we refuse to give of ourselves selflessly and sacrificially – when the selfish and uncaring and lazy darkness within us takes over. When we don’t even try to emulate Jesus and incorporate his teaching into our daily choices, into our daily lives.
WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN SO THAT OTHERS WILL NOTICE THAT I AM “SALT” AND “LIGHT” IN MY DAY TO DAY LIFE?