Salt and Light
“You are the salt of the earth. . . . You are the light of the world.” When it comes to preaching, I have something of a love-hate relationship with these most familiar passages of Scripture. Their familiarity is comforting and reassuring. There is something safe and warm about repeating the words that have been repeated by generations and generations before us, as if we are participating in a timeless and eternal truth. On the other hand, by their very familiarity we are prone to trivialize them or even co-opt their deeper meaning, as though timeless and eternal truth could be boiled down into a seven-word slogan. What does it mean anymore to say that someone is “salt of the earth?” Have we abused the proclamation that we are “the light of the world?”
The phrase “light of world” might make us think, in the vein of Jonathan Edwards, of a person or group who ought to be sought after and imitated. In modern English, we use the phrase “salt of the earth” to refer to someone we regard as especially upright – a really good person. One commentator reflects on how our modern use of this phrase makes it difficult for us to understand how strange this phrase must have sounded to Jesus’ first audience. This commentator suggests that we could catch the force of the phrase better by substituting another seasoning; and I quote: “You are red hot pepper for the whole earth!”* The point of the saying is not to claim someone’s status among the ethically elite. These sayings go much deeper than our modern sloganizing. They point to the source of our identity and the purpose of our lives, both as individually and corporately.
When Jesus addressed his “salt of the earth” and “light of the world” audience, he was not calling them a bunch of do-gooders who ought to be imitated. He was instructing them to preserve their identity and to live out their purpose. When we take time to consider these saying as more than slogans but as God’s word to us, we might hear echoes of those same instructions in our time.
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” We each have multiple identities that make us who we are. We wear many hats, if you will. A big part of my identity is as a pastor. I am also a wife and a daughter and a friend. You may identify yourself by the work you do. If you are a parent or a grandparent, that also ought to be a significant part of your identity. Sometimes our identity is wrapped up not in a role we play but in some particular personality trait. For example, I pride myself on being someone who can get a job done, a go-getter and an organizer. All of these kinds of things are what make us who we are. But to be salt of the earth is to claim our identity first and foremost not in our work or our children or our personality, but in Jesus Christ.
I know the analogy isn’t very scientific, but bear with me. Salt without saltiness is just a rock, just as red hot pepper without heat or flavor is an empty shell. There is something essential that must be preserved and maintained if salt or hot pepper is to be anything at all. The same can be said about followers of Christ. Forgive me for being a little cheesy, but if salt is supposed to be salty, than Christians are supposed to be – “Christ-y.” Without Christ we are empty shells, do-gooders at best, but without the peace, the joy, and the love that come from relationship with our Lord.
It seems obvious, I guess. You would not call a rock, “salt.” And you would throw away a dusty, stale old red pepper. But every day those of us who claim to be Christ followers neglect to keep our relationship with Christ fresh. Sometimes we think we can get by on our own identity without need for Christ. Sometimes we focus on our good deeds, whether those are personal piety or serving others, without ever really receiving the gift of grace that Jesus offers us. Receiving is hard for us. We are better at doing. But the start of being “salt (or red hot pepper) of the earth” is to receive the gift of saltiness (or heat) that Christ gives. In more spiritual terms, this means to reckon yourself as one who is forgiven, however unworthy you may feel. It is to reckon yourself as loved, however unlovely you may look. It is to realize how dependent you are, however strong you may act. To be the salt of the earth is not primarily to be a good person with high ethical standards. It is to be someone whose identity is rooted firmly in the unmerited, sometimes even unsolicited, love of Jesus Christ.
The same can also be said of the church corporately. Our “saltiness” as a community is not measured by the fervor of our worship or the quality of our preachers. (Although, I don’t think we’re half bad!) And while I am proud of our efforts to house the homeless over the past two weeks through the Red Cross and Family Promise, our saltiness is also not measured by the number of good deeds that we do for our neighbors. A good musician can rouse a congregation without calling on Christ. A good speaker can please the crowd without truly preaching the Word of God. And we can do all manner of good deeds because they make us feel good about ourselves. None of these things matter if we do not first of all identify ourselves as a community that has been called into being by Christ, reconciled with one another because of Christ, and continually led with Christ as our head.
Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. . . .No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
Salt and light have functions; they have jobs to do. For salt that job is to bring flavor to a meal or to preserve food for later use. For light it is to brighten a dark room. But those functions are secondary to their identity. In fact, they cannot do their jobs without their salty and bright identities. Bland salt cannot improve a pot of soup, nor stale peppers a pot of chili. A burned-out bulb will never light a room. Likewise, our function, our job, as followers of Christ is secondary to our identity in Christ and relationship with Christ. As Christians and as the church we have jobs to do, but we cannot do the work to which we have been called if we do not first remember who we are and to whom we belong. Individually and corporately we must depend wholly on Christ who, praise God, is wholly dependable!
When the prophet Isaiah speaks to Israel in Isaiah 58, he is correcting the community for doing only part of their job – maintaining personal piety – without tending to their identity as the chosen and liberated people of God. Because they have forgotten who they are, they have also been unable to do the rest of their job – practicing peace and carrying out justice for the laborer, the hungry, and the homeless in their midst. They are a quarreling, self-serving group of people who think they should be called “salt of the earth” and “light for the world.”
What Isaiah tells them is that their light will dawn and their brokenness shall be healed when they remember their identity as a people chosen and saved by God and when they practice the forgiveness and generosity that they have already received. The key to being the light of the world is to shine our light as a derivative, a reflection, of the light Christ has already shined into the dark places of our own hearts.
On Christmas Eve, when Pastor Jack gave the benediction, he raised his hands toward the congregation and said, “You are the light of world.” I remember the benediction because it caught me by surprise. I thought to myself, “No, Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world.’” Look it up: John 8:12. For a minute, Jack, I thought you had committed heresy, and on Christmas Eve of all times. As it turns out, Jack was right, and so am I. We are the light of the world, but only because – and only when we remember – that Jesus is the light of the world. The light we shine is Christ’s light and for God’s glory alone.
Being a shining light in the darkness of the world has little to do with occupation or vocation. It is not something that pastors and church workers alone do. It is not something that you do after you get off work or on the weekends. Being the light of the world is a way of life for all people who have received the light of Christ. It is something you do no matter what hat you are wearing. For the business owner, it means treating your workers fairly – even mercifully – because God has shown mercy to you. For the husband or wife it means putting your spouse’s well-being first because Christ put your well-being first. For anyone who finds herself in the midst of petty fighting and power-struggles, it means to be a peacemaker, because in Christ God has made peace with you. For all of us who have bread to eat and homes for shelter, it means generously sharing our abundance with those who have little. And if, as a nation, we want to claim the status as the city upon the hill, then we must realize that claims comes with the responsibility to ensure justice for every worker, bread for every table, and the end of partisan bickering. And all of it because God has already given it all to us.
We probably will not stop thinking of the most upright people we know when we hear the phrase “salt of the earth.” Johnathan Edwards may forever come to mind when we reflect upon the light of the world and the city upon the hill. But in your own journey of faith, I hope you will begin think of these phrases not as a status to be obtained, but as a reminder of your identity in Jesus Christ and of your purpose to let your light – that it, Christ’s light – shine into the darkness of the world. When you do, you shall find a new identity as in the words of Isaiah, you shall be known as those who can fix anything, restore and renovate, and make the community livable again (Isaiah 58:12, The Message).
May it be so. Amen.
*Douglas R.A. Hare. Matthew: Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. (Louisville, KY: John Knox, 1993) p.44.