Salt and Light | 5th after Epiphany

Matthew 5:13-20

13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet. 14 You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.

17 “Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them. 18 I say to you very seriously that as long as heaven and earth exist, neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen will be erased from the Law until everything there becomes a reality. 19 Therefore, whoever ignores one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called the lowest in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever keeps these commands and teaches people to keep them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 I say to you that unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the legal experts and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (CEB)

Salt and Light

This is one of those well-known texts that has been interpreted and used in a multitude of ways throughout the centuries. Often times, pastors and scholars try to put a modern kind of interpretation on the text. My favorite modern interpretation was about as off-the-wall as they come. In talking about light, the interpreter mentioned how light can be concentrated into laser beams. First of all, the first laser wasn’t built until 1960, so I highly doubt Jesus had laser beams on his mind when he gave this sermon. Secondly, I couldn’t get the image of Dr. Evil’s discourse on sharks armed with laser beams out of my head. I mean, when an interpretation conjures up scenes from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, it just throws the whole thing out the window.

That said, it is important that we look at different interpretations in order to find meaning. Salt, alone, has lots of possibilities because it can be used in a lot of different ways. It is one of the most important minerals in the history of human existence.

First, salt’s ability to preserve food was a contributing factor to the rise of human civilization. Yes, salt was important stuff, but probably no more important in the ancient world than it is today, even if it cost a little more back then.

Then, there’s the idea that salt was so valuable that it was used as a currency, and Roman soldiers were paid in salt. So, when Jesus tells us we are “the salt of the earth” it might mean that we should be valuable. But, a little research into this persistent myth reveals that you shouldn’t believe everything you find on Wikipedia. The myth begins with our English word salary, which possibly comes from the Latin word salarium, which contains the Latin word sal, meaning salt or salty, as a prefix. Now, the thing is, this connection was a guess by 19th century Latin lexicographers. It’s a good guess, probably a correct guess of the word’s origin, but it doesn’t connect salt to having been used as a salary.

One problem is that, according to Polybius (a Greek historian who chronicled the Punic Wars and rise of the Roman Republic), the wage of a Roman foot-soldier was two obols per day, which was twenty copper as coins (c.f. Polybius, Histories, 6-39-12). Another historian, Livy, records the price of salt at 1/6th of an as per pound (c.f. Livy, History of Rome, 29-37). So, to adequately pay a Roman soldier in salt, you would have to give him 120 pounds of salt per day. Something tells me that would have somewhat hindered the maneuverability of Roman Legions. While the salt trade was lucrative enough in high volumes that cities were built upon it, the cost of salt, itself, wasn’t high enough that Romans would have used it as a substitute for copper or silver currency. So, value might not be what Jesus is talking about here.

Many Ancient Near Eastern cultures would salt the earth by spreading salt over a city their armies had destroyed. It was meant to purify the land from the rebellion and/or enemy people, and act as a curse to anyone who would dare to rebuild on the site. Judges 9:45 records how, when Abimelech’s monarchy was falling apart (he was actually the first king in Israel, not Saul), he slaughtered the people of Shechem and salted the earth. The practice of salting the earth wasn’t necessarily done to make the land infertile, nor are there any records of conquerors spreading sufficient quantities of salt to do so of which I know. But connecting Jesus’ words to this practice doesn’t make much sense. I highly doubt Jesus is calling us to be the purification and curse of the earth after nations practice the wholesale slaughter of cities and peoples.

Salt can be used as an antiseptic, but it’s not one most of us like to use. We have that phrase, salt in the wound, for a reason. It’s painful! So, if Jesus is talking about salt in the sense that we keep the germs of the world at bay, then we’re apparently supposed to accomplish it by causing pain and suffering. So, maybe that one’s out, too.

Salt is a seasoning. That might work. It enhances flavor. It makes foods taste better than what they would without salt. Maybe. Maybe Jesus is saying we make the world taste better than it would without us. It seems a little iffy to me but, perhaps, closer to the point than the others.

Salt is a necessary nutrient for life. That sounds good, except Jesus calls us the salt of the earth. So, I’m not sure how that plays into Jesus’ message. Maybe it works if we’re necessary for living out and sharing the message of God’s redemption and offer of salvation to all the world. Possibly.

Ezra 4:14 suggests that salt was seen by some ancient peoples as a sign that they are in service to someone. A group of people wrote to the king of Persia to complain about Ezra and said they’ve shared the salt of the palace, meaning, they’re loyal servants of the king. But this was more likely a Persian idea than a Jewish one.

The thing is, when you look at salt from a Jewish perspective, it has to do with purity and holiness. When the Lord told Moses to make incense, God said, “Take an equal amount of each of these spices: gum resin, onycha, galbanum, and pure frankincense. Like a skilled perfume maker, carefully blend them together and make incense, seasoned with salt, pure and holy” (Exod. 30:34-35, CEB). Here, salt is described as both pure and holy.

In regard to offerings, Leviticus 2:13 says, You must season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not omit the salt of your God’s covenant from your grain offering. You must offer salt with all your offerings” (CEB). Because salt was considered pure, it had the effect of making other things pure and holy. To omit the salt of God’s covenant would render the sacrifice unholy and unacceptable.

In Numbers, God speaks of the offerings that belong to Aaron’s household as “a covenant of salt forever in the LORD’s presence, for you and your descendants” (Numbers 18:19b, CEB). A “covenant of salt” means that it’s a holy covenant.

So, when Jesus tells us we are “the salt of the earth” he’s building upon the kind of faith he describes in the Beatitudes by telling us that our faith is to be holy and pure. And, since faith is not some separate thing from our everyday lives but something that we every second of every day, Jesus is reminding us that our lives are supposed to be holy and pure. Then, he asks how salt that has lost its saltiness can be restored and declares that it’s worthless. More on that in a minute.

He follows this by saying, “You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16, CEB).

Real holiness, true purity of life, is something that people can see. That’s not to say we should be showing off on the street corners. Jesus describes that as false piety. But, Jesus does tell us we know people by their fruit (Matthew 7:15-23). What we do reveals more about us than what we say even when we’re not calling attention to the things we’re doing. A smooth tongue can make us look good but doesn’t always speak the truth about us. What we do, however, says a lot. We Methodists have always held faith and works together. In fact, as James 2 tells us, true faith is revealed in our works of love and mercy. We can’t claim to have faith if we never act faithfully.

So, what does it mean to have this kind of faith? In 1630, John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, spoke before his people saying this:

“Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man”

 (Sorry about the masculine language. This is from 387 years ago).

“We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other’s necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make other’s conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as his own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways. So that we shall see much more of his wisdom, power, goodness and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when he shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “the Lord make it like that of New England.” For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are a going. (I modernized the spelling throughout).

To be the salt of the earth, to be the light of the world means we live lives that are holy and pure. It means our righteousness of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees and Scribes, which was concerned with the observance of tradition. It means that we live out the kind of community John Winthrop described in his address. Are we the salt of the earth, or has our faith lost something of its purity and holiness?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!


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