“Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5: 17)
Do you ever try to imagine what it must’ve been like to hear Jesus preach? The gospel lesson from the Revised Common lectionary for Epiphany 5 (Matthew 5:13-20) is part of the “Sermon on the Mount,” and there’s some really cool and pertinent stuff in it. Now, granted, if Jesus gave this sermon in my homiletics course in seminary, the professor would probably give him a D- grade and say that it was too random and lacked focus. Don’t let that throw you. Old Matthew probably, the Bible experts tell us, glued together a bunch of Jesus sayings and stuck them in the middle of his narrative. How Jesus actually preached remains a mystery to us. An equal mystery might be what it felt like to hear him.
The gospels tell us that Jesus attracted huge crowds. He was a rock star in his day, so he must’ve been saying stuff that no one had thought about before—stuff that really touched peoples’ hearts and imaginations. Here he’s saying, “You are the salt of the earth,” and “You are the light of the world.” I’ll bet those Galilean peasants never heard anyone tell them that before! Salt in the ancient world could be used as currency. Jesus is telling these poor folks that they are something of value. This, I’m sure, may have made them feel all warm and fuzzy inside, but Jesus goes on to remind them that things of value have a purpose.
Normally, of course, we consider things to be valuable because they have a purpose. I don’t just admire my computer or my car because they are nicely designed. I value them because I can use them. It’s the use that creates the value. But God’s grace works a little differently than that. We aren’t valuable to God because we’re useful. We’re useful because God has valued us.
The confirmation class I teach is studying the Hebrew Scriptures, and I’m trying to get the kids to understand the idea of a covenant. God strikes a bunch of bargains with folks in the OT, but they’re always somewhat one-sided. That is, God ends up doing the heavy lifting, and God’s people get the benefit. The covenant at Sinai—the Law—is a great example. God has already promised never to destroy humankind[i], and God has promised to bless the descendants of Abraham only in exchange for Abraham’s faith that God will do this. By the time we get to Sinai, God has already freed God’s people from famine and slavery and delivered them safely out of Egypt. God’s already done God’s part before God asks anything of the beneficiaries. The Law is not a condition for God’s blessing. It’s supposed to be our response to it. God isn’t into quid pro quo.
God’s also not looking just for ritual piety. The scribes and the Pharisees might’ve been into that stuff, but, as far as Jesus seems to be concerned, they’re like salt that’s lost its flavor. Jesus is always calling to our hearts. He’s not like some evangelical TV preacher who’ll tell you that you’re holy as long as you aren’t gay and don’t have an abortion. A response to the Law of God calls for a radical repentance, a willingness to see God in others, a transcendent love. That’s the difference between real religion and superstition. We become hidden lamps and tasteless salt when we think all we need to do is get our kids baptized and confirmed so we can satisfy ourselves that we’ve paid our dues. Jesus wants us to experience that which goes beyond ritual observance—a righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees.
The lectionary pairs this passage from Matthew with a reading from Isaiah 58. Here the prophet lays out what righteousness means in terms of love of neighbor:
Is this not the fast that I choose; to loose the bonds of injustice,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and to bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7)
Our response to being God’s light and salt is to feed and shelter and heal and end oppression. It’s to restore relationships.
I have to say, I’m pretty proud of my little congregation for being involved in sheltering the homeless (we partner with Interfaith Hospitality Network), and for helping to feed the hungry and clothe the naked (we partner with Feast of Justice and support their clothing and food cupboards). If God has blessed us at all, it is certainly that we may continue to be a blessing. Nevertheless, I get a sneaking hunch that Jesus is calling us to even more. When I imagine hearing Jesus talk about righteousness, I imagine he’s firing me up to a more radical sense of mercy that goes beyond what’s done in church.
When I listen to the news these days or talk to folks I get a feeling that we’re confusing righteousness with “fairness.” We’d rather see needy people neglected than have “unworthy” people get something to which they’re not entitled by our way of thinking. But, if we are the salt of the earth, aren’t we called to something more?
[i] Please note, there’s nothing in the covenant with Noah that says God will prevent us from destroying ourselves. That’s all on us. If you think God will magically reverse climate change after we’ve put so much crap into the atmosphere, you’d better think again!