Being Salt and Light (Matt. 5:13-16)

In the first paragraph after the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:13-16), Jesus’ disciples are directly addressed as the salt and light of the world.

Light as a metaphor hardly needs comment; salt may be less obvious. Salt functioned as a spice as it does today, but it also functioned (in an age without refrigeration) as a preservative. I suspect both meanings are intended.

Disciples of Jesus can have a preserving function in our world by living according to the wisdom of God rather than the wisdom of the world (the domination system). Communities of disciples of Jesus can help preserve some of the virtues and qualities so essential to our true humanity, like compassion, mercy, justice, humility, honesty, etc.

And these qualities do need preserving. John Pierce, editor of Baptist Today, in a recent editorial told about coming across a historical marker along the Tennessee Riverwalk that chilled him as much as the cold wind and falling temperatures he was walking in.

It was President Andrew Jacksons’ message to U.S. Congress in 1830 regarding “Indian Removal.” Jackson said:

“It gives me pleasure to announce to Congress that the benevolent policy of the Government, steadily pursued for nearly thirty years, in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements is approaching a happy consummation. . . .The consequences of a speedy removal will be important to the United States, to individual States, and to the Indians themselves. . . . It will separate Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.”

President Jackson tried to make the Government’s persecution and enforced hardship upon the Indians sound as if it was for their own good and happiness.

In a world where the domination system executes its own agenda disciples of Jesus are called to form communities that become light and salt, that offer an alternative. And we do so, not for the benefit of ourselves, but the for the benefit of the world. We are to be light and salt for the world.

By presenting an alternative to the normalcy of the world, by living according to the way of Jesus, not the way things normally are, we confront the world with a choice. We are like a city lit up on a hill that cannot be hid. When we identify with the poor and the suffering, work for social justice, speak truth to power, love our enemies . . . when we live the Sermon on the Mount, then we offer the world an alternative, we will be a city on a hill that cannot be hid.

Like salt, we will add zest to the life of the world. To catch the nuance, it might help to think about a different seasoning; we will be like red hot peppers. Followers of Jesus should be lovers of life adding spice to life.

The salt and light that Jesus was is in each of us—we just need to tap into it and let it out. If we as disciples of Jesus fail to embody his life and teachings, fail “to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God,” fail to love God, neighbor, and our enemies, then like salt from which the sodium chloride has been leached, we will become tasteless, boring, meaningless, and uninteresting.

There may be times of intense persecution when the only way the church can survive is by going underground, but otherwise, our role is clear. We are called to live in visible communities (“you” is corporate, not singular) where we function as salt and light, not to ourselves, but to the world.

When we are truly being salt and light in the world, there will be no need for marketing strategies or evangelistic teams canvassing neighborhoods. Our very presence in the community being light and salt will confront society with the alternative path of Jesus of Nazareth.


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