Today’s lesson comes right after what are called the Beatitudes—or the Sermon on the Mount.
Matthew tells us that before that, “large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him…” and “when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he started teaching them.”
Looking up at him would have been the suffering masses. They were the poor, the uneducated, the disillusioned, the abused, the misfits, the oppressed and the marginalised. They had no power. And they never expected to have any power. They were just trying to survive another day.
Jesus looked at them and said: “You are the salt of the earth.” “You are the light of the world.”
In ancient Israel, salt was a part of the rituals of sacrifice. Before modern refrigeration, salt was a necessity when it came to preserving foods.
How important is salt?
In the Simpsons, Homer called salt divine. Plato called it a “substance dear to the gods.” Shakespeare mentioned salt 17 times in his plays.
Perhaps Leonardo da Vinci wanted to send a subtle message about purity lost when he painted “The Last Supper.” In that painting it seems an overturned bowl of salt is conspicuously placed before Judas.
In ancient Greece a far-flung trade involving the exchange of salt for slaves gave rise to the expression, “…not worth his salt.”
The human body contains salt. Without enough of it, muscles won’t contract, blood won’t circulate, food won’t digest and the heart won’t beat. Without a doubt, salt is essential for life.
Salt is a BIG DEAL!
They didn’t even have electricity when Jesus gave this sermon. Therefore, they could really only accomplish and do things during the day—when the sun was out.
“You are the salt of the earth.”
“You are the light of the world.”
And Jesus said this to this humble mob.
What can we take home from our text today?
Perhaps today’s stories, which hint at common everyday life in first century Palestine, can be a guide or at least offer a couple of suggestions or signposts to the “church” as images of light or salt. It says something about the indirect and hidden nature of the church.
That is, they reveal a way in which the life of a faith community should seek to express itself. Rather than calling attention to itself, a church or congregation or a ‘follower of Jesus’, is most effective when it/they are not noticed (Reid 2001:61).
The ‘church’ cannot exist alongside of, or in separation from, the community that surrounds and feeds us as human beings.
A theologian and educationalist, Denham Grierson, published an important book called A People on The Way. Grierson picked up the three biblical images of light, salt and yeast and said they provide “a theological foundation for a local congregation as it seeks to define its mission”. He then went on to say: “That mission is best understood as a continuing persisting presence… Much of the witness of the local congregation (will be) of the kind that is hidden within the fabric of community”.
A continuing persisting presence… Hidden, you might say, like salt?
Just enough salt and food is delicious. Too much salt and it is ruined. The salt is not detectable if it is doing its job. Its effects are.
A continuing persisting presence, hidden, like salt.
Biblical scholar Barbara Reid puts Matthew’s ‘salt’ story in some sort of context:
“…the uses of salt in the ancient world included: seasoning, preservation, purification, and judgment…”
She goes on: “In saying to his disciples, ‘You are the salt of the earth’, Jesus could have meant that they perform any and all of these functions: that they draw out the liveliness and savour of God’s love in the world; they are a sign of God’s eternal fidelity; they bring to judgment all that is opposed to God’s basileia* kingdom”. (Reid 2001:48).
“The task of Christians in every age is to discern what it means in a new context to be faithful to the words and deeds of Jesus. Just as Christians of the last century determined that abolition of slavery was being most faithful to the gospel, even though Jesus’ teachings presumed the institution of slavery, so today we face the challenge of eliminating sexism and systems of domination, though these are woven into the fabric of the Gospels”. (Reid 2001:59).
If everything changes, then change must change too. Our model perhaps is to be a continuing persisting presence, hidden if you like, like salt. And amid change that is also changing.
To be a continuing persisting presence.
Last week I shared about Mahatma Ghandi who was able to achieve for his people independence from the domination of the British Empire without lifting weapons. In his biography he states: “The church, the very institution that Jesus’ teachings gave rise to, has for centuries left the salt out of Jesus’ teachings and offered up a flavourless dogmatic dish aimed at pleasing the palates of the powers of Empire to which it has been tied for centuries. As a result, the followers of Jesus all too often forget Jesus’ call to be the salt of the earth.”
Māori activist Titewhai Harawira, who has died aged 90, was a figure who stood out among the masses. While small in stature, the Ngāpuhi matriarch had enormous mana.
She was also a polarising figure on the marae. In the 1990s, she appointed herself as escort for the many dignitaries, including prime ministers, who descended on Waitangi. Some she supported, others she challenged.
In 1998, she told then-Opposition leader Helen Clark to sit down when she tried to speak on the marae, something only men are permitted to do under tikanga Māori. “My marae, I am very firm about taking second place in men’s games,” Harawira said in 1998.
Harawira called out the Māori men willing to overlook tikanga to the detriment of their own Māori women.
“Titewhai reminded us that it should be Māori women first given that privilege but all women should be listened to and respected,” said solicitor and Māori advocate Annette Sykes.
Her son Hone Harawira said, “She’s the one who gave us the strength to take the hard road. It’s a hard road, the road of activism”.
These salty people went up against empires more powerful than their worlds had ever seen before. Without the use of violence, with the sheer force of their saltiness they managed to change the flavour of the stew in which their people lived.
You and I are the salt of the earth. What injustices are we prepared to shine a light on? The oppression of empires continues under the banner of ‘globalisation’. Inequities exist and people suffer and die. We who claim to follow Jesus have been called to live into our saltiness. Do we have what it takes to shine a light on the poverty/violence that exists in our time? How salty are we?
We are the salt of the earth, people! Have we lost our saltiness? Or are we prepared to shine a light on the needs of the oppressed? Are we prepared to add our salt to the mix and employ the methods embodied by Jesus and many others to take a stand for justice and peace?
Let your light shine, Let’s change the flavor of this stew!!!
A Peanuts cartoon showed Peppermint Patty talking to Charlie Brown in which she said, “Guess what, Chuck? The first day of school, and I got sent to the principal’s office. It was your fault, Chuck.”
Charlie Brown responds, “My fault? How could it be my fault? Why do you say everything is my fault?” To which she declares, “You’re my friend, aren’t you, Chuck? Then you should have been a better influence on me.”
There’s a quotation that has often been credited to Nelson Mandela, but it was actually written by activist Marianne Williamson. It speaks to the world’s need of our very selves. Williamson writes:
What holds us back in our lives is our fear.
And sometimes when you take a very close look
you find out that your fears
aren’t exactly what you thought they were.
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves,
who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest
the glory of God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
So it’s holy work to move past your own fear.
It doesn’t just help you.
It helps the world.
Friedman, E. H. What are You Going to Do with Your Life? Unpublished Writing and Diaries. New York. Seabury Books, 2009.
Grierson, D. A People on The Way. Congregation, Mission and Australian Culture. Melbourne. JBCE, 1991.
Kaufman, G. D. Jesus and Creativity. Minniapolis. Fortress Press, 2006.
Reid, B. E. Parables for Preachers. Year A. Collegeville. The Liturgical Press, 2001.
* The term basileia indicates royal power, kingship, dominion, rule. It is not to be confused with an actual kingdom but rather the right or authority to rule over a kingdom.