Sometimes the readings we hear on a Sunday are hard to understand, and this is a challenge for me as a preacher. Sometimes they are hard to apply, which is also a challenge. This morning’s reading from Matthew is neither hard to understand nor hard to apply which, strangely enough, is also a challenge for me as a preacher.
This morning’s reading is a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount, which is Jesus’s first block of teaching in this gospel. It started last week with the Beatitudes—blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, and so on. It will continue next week with some of the most difficult verses in the gospel, so although I was surprised to learn that Bishop John is going to be joining us, I’m vastly relieved that he gets them and not me.
Because this passage is pretty straightforward, I’ll just give a bit of background and context, then ask questions for reflection.
Jesus is speaking to the crowd. “You are the salt of the earth.” Salt was a precious commodity, necessary for preserving food. There is currently some debate as to whether Roman soldiers were paid in part with salt, although the etymology of the word “salary” certainly includes “sal”, the Latin for salt. Salt also improves the taste of food. Ancient Hebrew writings associated salt with wisdom and purity. So Jesus is telling the crowd that they are precious and essential, with a hint of wisdom and purity.
Eugene Peterson paraphrases it this way in The Message: “You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavours of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness?”
Then, “You are the light of the world.” Light is also essential. We need it to see. We don’t control it—why would anyone light a lamp which would have an open flame, only to cover it with a basket, which is flammable? You can’t hide a city full of light—Jesus is probably referring to Jerusalem. Also, we are light. We don’t have to make any effort, it’s simply who we are. So Jesus is saying, be yourselves, be who you are, let your light shine because doing otherwise is just plain goofy.
Again, from Eugene Peterson: “You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colours in the world. God is not a secret to be kept.”
We might see a contradiction with what Jesus says in the next chapter, in which he tells his listeners to pray in private. However, that teaching is about hypocrisy, and not making a big show of how faithful you are. In this case, the point is that who we are—salt and light—simply points to what we do—good works—which themselves simply point to the source of our being, our loving Father in heaven.
Jesus then seems to change the subject. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.” Jesus says, I am not rejecting the Hebrew Scriptures—not rejecting the law that God gave us to show us how to live, or the prophets who kept calling us back to living the right way. I’m here to fulfil the law—like filing up a hole, or cramming a net full of fish, or finishing a project or a job. We need these laws as they are until the project is finished, the project being the kingdom of heaven, that place of justice, peace, love and abundance that is already here and is also coming later.
And then he says, unless you are more righteous than the scribes and the Pharisees, you won’t get into the kingdom of heaven. The Pharisees were a particular group of Jews, similar to how Christians have denominations. They were known for their attention to the law: very precise. They were not particularly interested in the Temple and sacrifice. Scholars says that they are a proto-rabbinic movement; that is, over time they became the rabbis. I also looked up the Greek word for righteous. It means having integrity, virtue, purity of life, correctness in thinking, feeling and acting, and being equitable. It doesn’t mean being judgmental, socially conservative, and self-righteous. It means living the way God wants us to live: ethically and with integrity.
And here I got a bit lost with the idea of complicated laws and moral codes. But then I remembered the greatest law: love God and love your neighbour.
There is a famous story in the Talmud—which is a collection of ancient Jewish teachings on the law—about Rabbi Hillel, a great teacher around the time of Jesus. Hillel encouraged his disciples to follow the example of Aaron, the High Priest from centuries earlier, to “love peace and pursue peace, love all G‑d’s creations and bring them close to the Torah.” The story goes that someone asked Hillel to recite the entire Torah—the law—while standing on one foot. So he did: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go and study it!”
Jesus renders it this way, later in the gospel of Matthew, combining teaching in Deuteronomy and Leviticus: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt 22:36-40)
Here’s my summary of this morning’s gospel: We simply are essential and good for the world. We are called to follow the law—love God and love our neighbours—so that we can help bring about the world as God wants it to be, full of love, justice, abundance, and peace for all.
Questions for reflection
I wonder how you feel about the idea that you are salt and light?
I wonder what it looks like to you to let your light shine?
I wonder what the kingdom of heaven—that place of justice, peace, abundance and love–looks like to you?
 Jewish Annotated New Testament, p. 19