Last week we finished up our Worship Series, Recalculating. We were talking about the times in our lives when God may be recalculating our route in our Spiritual GPS, updating our route on the map, preparing us for the journey, or perhaps even changing our destination. He may have us diverge from where we had thought we were going or intended to go. That leads us into our new Worship series, Divergent. Where are we going with Jesus? How are we going to do it? For the next several weeks we will be looking at the directions Jesus would have us go that are different from what was typical for his day, and if we are honest with this day as well. “You have heard it said …”, but what does Jesus say? He will have us go against the norm and challenge the way we see things going in the world. Jesus dares us to go a different way, to diverge from the world, to diverge from the average, comfortable, watered down “religion” that so many people settle for today.
Our focus will be in Matthew chapter 5 of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Today, we will be looking at the why. Jesus tells us who we are, and why do we need to diverge from the average way of doing things. Divergent, Jesus challenging us to live counter-culturally, resisting the normal values of the day.
Today’s passage occurs very early in Jesus’ ministry. He has called the first disciples. He has begun preaching, teaching, and healing people. The crowds have followed Jesus up a mountainside. Now, he goes further up, taking his new disciples with him. As the sermon continues on, more and more people will join the audience. (cf. Mt 5:1-2; 7:28) We’re picking up just after the Beatitudes. Blessed (or happy) are the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, etc. Our passage is the Gospel of Matthew 5:13-20 from The VOICE translation.
13 You, beloved, are the salt of the earth. But if salt becomes bland and loses its saltiness, can anything make it salty again? No. It is useless. It is tossed out, thrown away, or trampled.
14 And you, beloved, are the light of the world. A city built on a hilltop cannot be hidden.
15 Similarly it would be silly to light a lamp and then hide it under a bowl. When someone lights a lamp, she puts it on a table or a desk or a chair, and the light illumines the entire house.
16 You are like that illuminating light. Let your light shine everywhere you go, that you may illumine creation, so men and women everywhere may see your good actions, may see creation at its fullest, may see your devotion to Me, and may turn and praise your Father in heaven because of it. 17 Do not think that I have come to overturn or do away with the law or the words of our prophets. To the contrary: I have not come to overturn them but to fulfill them.
18 This, beloved, is the truth: until heaven and earth disappear, not one letter, not one pen stroke, will disappear from the sacred law—for everything, everything in the sacred law will be fulfilled and accomplished. 19 Anyone who breaks even the smallest, most obscure commandment—not to mention teaches others to do the same—will be called small and obscure in the kingdom of heaven. Those who practice the law and teach others how to live the law will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you this: you will not enter the kingdom of heaven unless your righteousness goes deeper than the Pharisees’, even more righteous than the most learned learner of the law.
You are the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth. These are not things to aspire to when you are ready, when you have learned enough, when you are the perfect reflection of Christ. You are the salt of the earth right now. What does that even mean? I’ve heard people referred to that way most of my life. I eventually developed ideas based on context, but I never did know what it meant. I would have defined it as unpretentious people who are simple, steady, and reliable.
Dictionary.com defines “salt of the earth,” as “an individual or group considered as representative of the best and noblest elements of society.” Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as a “very good honest person or group of people.” The Cambridge Dictionary defines it about the same. The interesting thing is that these thoughts and ideas about the term come from verse 13 of today’s Scripture passage. It was not what Jesus was trying to describe. We now honor the “salt of the earth” because Jesus honored them. The important, highly-respected people of the day would have called Jesus’ audience the rabble, the vulgar crowd, the unknowledgeable, the eternally lost, basically worthless or worse than that, actively hurting God’s relationship with Israel due to their behavior and lack of knowledge. Yet, because they are there sitting on a mountainside with Jesus whether we are talking about the disciples or the crowd that followed them, they are important, and Jesus has an important job for them to do. They have been selected to be the salt of the earth.
Regardless of their background and what they’ve done before, they are the people who have the ability and capacity to assist in the coming of the kingdom. They have the ability to change the world. Once you are Jesus’ disciple, you are in that group too. You are the salt of the earth.
A friend of mine tells a story. “At a restaurant in California some while back he asked the waitress if their cioppino was good. She assured him it was. Cioppino is a wonderful seafood stew, and the server assured him theirs contained a lot of very fresh clams, shrimp, calamari, and more. He ordered it. And . . . it lacked all salt. Seemed like not so much as a shake of salt had been applied. Most of the seafood had had more salt clinging to it the day it came out of the ocean than it had in his bowl. And though the seafood was fresh and the tomato broth good, the whole dish fell flat. No salt, no flavor.
“Salt, of course, is [an interesting] as well as one of the most ancient of all cooking spices and additives. Sodium chloride is the only mineral that we human beings take directly from the earth and eat. We would die without salt but we’d also find a good bit of otherwise tasty food to be dull and lifeless were it not for salt. Perhaps that’s why in history some cultures exchanged salt as money. The earliest roads were built to transport salt, the earliest taxes were levied on it, whole military campaigns were launched to secure salt. Salt gave Venice its start as a commercial trading empire in Europe, and it helped Gandhi bring India to independence in the mid-twentieth century.
“According to Jeffrey Steingarten’s book, The Man Who Ate Everything (whence I got all the info I just wrote), we’re probably the first generation of [humans] to be paranoid about salt. Some people do legitimately have a low tolerance for salt, and people who already have high blood pressure need to monitor their sodium intake. But for the most part we need salt to live.””
“Salt is indispensable to good food. When used thoughtfully, it sharpens and defines flavors and aromas, it melds flavors in ways that transform bland dishes into something complex and wonderful. Salt controls the ripening of cheese, strengthens the gluten in bread, preserves meats. [This being one its most important uses in the ancient world up through the modern era of refrigeration.] Of course, even so, salt needs to be used well. Few things are more disappointing than finishing a dish at the stove only to remember too late that you forgot to add any salt. Then again, nothing can ruin a soup faster than too much salt (they say you can leech out some salt by floating raw potato slices on top of an over-salted soup but I don’t know . . .).
““You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus said to his disciples. It was a striking image then, and it’s a striking one now, but what does it imply for the life of discipleship? Well, I just mentioned the good effect salt has on the food we eat. Of course, to get that tasty effect, you have to mix the sodium chloride into the food. How foolish it would be to think that just having a box of salt next to the stove will make a difference even if you never sprinkle it into the soup. If you ask a cook, “Did you add any salt?”, then the answer had better not be, “No, but I have a box of it close by. Isn’t that enough?”
“That’s an absurd scenario, yet it seems pretty much to be the one Jesus has in mind. In verse 13 Jesus talks about salt losing its saltiness. To have salt but not use it, to have a shaker of salt sitting next to the stove but never to put any into the pot, is foolish. What’s the sense of having it there if you’re not going to add it to the food thoughtfully and with proper balance? You may as well toss it out the window for all the good such unused salt will do your dinner! Salt has a definite purpose and if you won’t use it for that purpose, then the salt becomes foolish to have around.” (Scott Hoezee, Center for Excellence in Preaching)
One of the points being, if you are salt as a disciple and follower of Jesus, and you are not doing your part to help preserve others, to help lead people to God through your life and your example, what good is there for being salt. Jesus seems to be doing something new. It is more like he is taking something old and doing it in a new way. The Israelites were formed and created into a people to do just that, to be an example to the world. You can know God by looking at us. Recently we have read passages from Isaiah that either show them as people to introduce God to the world. By being a light, a beacon, to show them the way to God. In Isaiah 60:1-3 God says:
1 “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
2 See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you.
3 Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
But they did not do that. Instead of looking to God, they looked to other nations. They said, we want to be like them, so they lost their distinctive flavor. The project fell flat. We also looked at those passages. Like Isaiah encourages Israel to return to its role as an example to the nations when he says in says to the Israelites in Isaiah 2:2-3:
2 the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.
3 Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
But again it didn’t happen. Rather than inviting people in and being a model of a healthy relationship with God, they were insular and cut off. They turned the light off in the lighthouse. They were leaving the box of salt on the shelf.
Now here, Jesus says to the disciples and us, you are the light of the world. You are salt of the earth. This is your identity, right here, right now. Don’t waste it. But why? Why is this important? Is it because he is going to turn everything upside down? Is he going to change everything? No … Yes … The Law is good. The prophets are good. They teach us things. They are not going away, to the contrary It’s as if Jesus is saying ... The expectation in keeping them is going to be higher than ever before. You think that the Pharisees and the teachers of the law are good keeping the law? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet, but I, Jesus, am going to show you what they really mean. Through my life, I am actually going to fulfill them.
Jesus was executed as a revolutionary, and he really was starting a revolution, different from the other revolutionaries bubbling up those days, but a revolution none the less. What he is telling the people here is why his is different.
You know what happens so often during a revolution. People shout about everything that is wrong with the current system. It’s easy to do that, but it is quite a different thing to be in charge and be responsible. If that happens, the people want to see whether the new group can govern better than its predecessor. Next, the people want to see whether they will stay true to their stated ideals once in power or whether they will give into corruption.
Jesus had to show two things: 1) His movement was the real deal. It was going to fulfill the promises the prophets made all the way back to Moses. He was going to fulfill all that Israel had believed and longed for, namely that God would re-establish his relationship with his people, and through them all the nations in the world would be blessed and also brought into right relationship with God. That is the Good News. The salvation of the world from the brokenness that separates us from God. 2) Jesus also had to show that he and his followers were authentically living by this new standard that he is announcing.
It’s not an either/or. It’s a both/and. Jesus is a great teacher and leader to model our lives after through what he did for us allows us to be in relationship with God. The way that it was intended from the beginning, like it was for Adam and Eve in the Garden. That is what everything in the Bible was pointing.
Then, Jesus goes on in the sermon to explain how he will fulfill the law and the prophets. He explains what it means to live it. In the next couple of weeks, we will be looking at some of that more specifically. He starts off with, “You have heard it said …” then he gives us the diverging, fuller, and often times more challenging interpretation. He takes us all the way to 7:12, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” It sounds so simple doesn’t it? But, that doesn’t make it easy.
Our passage today is a gate to the rest of the sermon. Jesus is calling the people of Israel to live up to their purpose, to be salt, to be a light to the nations pointing the world to God, especially now that Jesus is on the scene. Now, we are included in that calling. We can’t be the same as everyone else. That is what it means to be in the world but not of the world, and that’s tough to do. We have to be out there helping people, help to keep things from going bad. That was the primary use for salt in the ancient world, and we’re supposed to be a light pointing people towards God. But, we’re supposed to do that without getting drug down into the mire ourselves. We reach out a helping hand to pull people out of the pit, out of the ditch, without allowing them to pull us in. It’s tough to do both, and the church and ones calling themselves people of God had often gotten it wrong. It’s much easier to stay out of the pit if you never reach in to help people out. It’s much easier to allow yourself to slide into the pit and play in the mud. It’s tough to do both.
The Good News is that we do not have to do it all on our own, and in fact, we cannot. We have Jesus, who shows us the way himself. He was the salt of the earth. He was the light of the world. He was set upon a hill and crucified for the world. He is the beacon of hope, the literal light house or life house guiding people to safety in the love of God. He fulfilled the Law and the Prophets through his self-giving love.
Now, all of those things applied to Israel apply to all who follow Jesus. It is now up to us. He gives this challenge to you. How does it affect you? Is it intimidating? How does it inspire you? Where do you see the need for salt and light right now? How can you through following Jesus provide it? Divergent. Changing the world through the revolutionary power of God’s love!