"You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.
"You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.
"Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven."
- Matthew 5:13-20
Yesterday, we began reading in Matthew's Gospel. The lectionary takes us to chapter 5. This is the Sermon on the Mount, beginning with the Beatitudes, or the blessings of the Kingdom. Seeing the multitudes, Jesus went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him. Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
"You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men." Jesus has named the blessings of discipleship in the The Beatitudes (above, yesterday's reading). He now describes the role of disciples in the world, using metaphors of salt and light. Salt held the greatest importance in the ancient world, in ways many of us may have forgotten. Salt has preservative powers, it's necessary for life, and also had religious and sacrificial significance. (See Leviticus 2:13; also Numbers 18:19; 2 Chronicles 13:5). To eat salt with someone meant to be bound together in loyalty, my study bible tells us. If Christians are the salt of the earth, therefore, they are the preservers of God's covenant, as well as giving true flavor to the world. Salt may lose its flavor through humidity; the particular molecule of salt being leached out through moisture.
"You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven." God is the true and uncreated Light, says my study bible, and all light is reflected from this Source. In the Old Testament, light is symbolic of God (Isaiah 60:1-3), the divine Law (Psalm 119:105), and Israel as a contrast to all other nations. In the New Testament, the Son of God is called "light" (John 1:4-9, 8:12; 1 John 1:5). We need light in order to see clearly and for life itself. Faith relies on divine light to see clearly, to be illumined with wisdom. In living our faith, believers become "sons of light," through participation and communion (John 12:36; 1 Thessalonians 5:5). Such light shines in a perverse world (Philippians 2:15). At Easter, many of the Eastern churches begin the liturgy with a candle presented to all, and the invitation: "Come receive the Light which is never overtaken by night." Jesus makes it clear here that the blessings of discipleship don't work simply for us as individuals, but become that light that shines in the world and are therefore shared with others. In so doing, virtue becomes not simply personal but also public. My study bible says that in living discipleship, virtue can bring others to glorify the Father.
"Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill." My study bible says that Jesus fulfills the Law in Himself, in His words, and in His actions in several ways. He performs God's will in all its fullness (Matthew 3:15). He transgresses none of the precepts of the Law (John 8:46; 14:30). He declares further along in this Sermon the perfect fulfillment of the Law, and He grants to us righteousness, which is the goal of the Law (Romans 3:31; 8:3-4; 10:4). He fulfills the Prophets by being and carrying out what they have foretold.
"For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled." Assuredly is translated from the original text in which Jesus begins His statement with the word "Amen." It means "truly" or "confirmed," or "so be it." It's a solemn affirmation used here by Jesus as a kind of oath pertaining to what He is about to say. At various times in the Gospels Jesus uses "Amen" at the beginning of certain proclamations (rather than at the end). My study bible calls this usage by Jesus unique and authoritative: He declares His words are affirmed before they are even spoken. A jot ("iota" in the Greek)is the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet; a tittle is the smallest stroke in some Hebrew letters. Thereby, the whole of the Law is affirmed as the foundation of Jesus' new teaching. All is fulfilled, says my study bible, refers to the Passion and Resurrection of Christ.
"Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven." My study bible says that righteousness according to the Law is a unified whole. What that means is that the observance of the least commandments is to observe the whole Law, while a violation of the least commandment is considered a violation of the whole Law. In our future readings, we will read the commandments Jesus is speaking up, His new commandments that take us deeper into an understanding of righteousness.
In yesterday's reading, Jesus prepared the way in the beginning of His Sermon on the Mount by teaching us the Beatitudes, the blessings of the Kingdom. That is, He gave us discipleship as the blessed way of life. These blessings are not material. They transcend circumstances. They come from a lived faith, and grow as we deepen our communion with Him, and continue a life of participation in His love: this kingdom of Father, Son, Spirit and the whole of the communion of saints. Life in the Kingdom must grow our own blessedness: the comfort that comes to those who mourn, our understanding of what it is to be pure in heart, poor in spirit, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be peacemakers, to be merciful, and all those things that become the spiritual fruits of discipleship. In these things we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. He invites us to grow in these things, sharing them with the world, glorifying God -- and building up that glory in those who will also accept it around us. This is a very different picture of what we commonly call blessings, but it is the blessedness of the Kingdom, of life in the Kingdom as we live in this world. And this is what He assures His followers: that living such a life is indeed finding the full righteousness of the Law, a righteousness that even the scribes and Pharisees don't know. He will go much further as He continues with His sermon in teaching us exactly what that kind of righteousness looks like. But above all else, we have His life in the world as fulfillment of such, as a kind of record and example, a fulfillment of all righteousness -- so that we, too, may share in such. Ultimately, to fulfill such righteousness through Christ becomes a job for each one of us, and He is laying out the way, His Way. To become the living salt of the earth, or the light of the world begins within us, not "out there" with what we think can be fixed. Let us be attentive.