“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men. You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5.13-16.
It is important to remember that these oh-so-familiar words of Jesus were spoken, at the time, not to gentiles like me but to Jews; and that is where their significance lies. For salt and light were what the Jews of Jesus’ audience had always considered themselves to be: the world’s buffer against corruption, the world’s beacon of hope. But now Jesus is telling them that Israel has lost its saltiness and that its light has become hidden. That is the rebuke within the challenge that he lays down in these verses. And the challenge itself was and is to all who hear it, to become part of a new Israel — a true Israel — that will be the salt and light that the old Israel no longer is, nor ever really has been.
Salt was then, more so than now, a powerful image of just what God’s people should be in the world where they were placed. It was used to bring out the flavours of food (Job 6.6); it was an antiseptic, rubbed into the skin of a new-born baby (Ezekiel 16.4) and into wounds to prevent infection; and it was above all a preservative, used to delay the decay of meat and fish in a world with no refrigeration. So should God’s people be life-enhancing. So should God’s people bring healing. So should God’s people be a buffer against corruption and evil.
It is sometimes said that it is, in fact, physically impossible for salt to lose its saltiness because salt is a stable chemical. But, true as that is, the “salt” in a Jewish household of Jesus’ day could indeed lose its saltiness because it arrived in the form of a block of white residue from the Dead Sea which was actually a mixture of salt and gypsum. If the block got damp, the true salt would seep away leaving just the salt-like but tasteless gypsum, which would then have to be thrown out into the street. Just as worthless, says Jesus, are God’s people if the godliness has seeped out of them, if they have ceased to be the life-enhancing, health-giving, decay-stopping people they are called to be.
And God’s people are to shine with goodness. They are to be in this world a new Jerusalem, the sheer beauty of which will draw people to it. That is the point of “a city on a hill”. To Jesus’ audience, the city on the hill was Jerusalem on Mount Zion, the city of God, with its temple of white marble and gold, dazzlingly bright in the light of the sun. But God wants his people’s goodness to be the magnet that draws folk to himself — not a piece of architecture.
As I re-read this morning’s verses, another thought strikes me. Jesus doean’t say, “I want you to become the salt of the earth … I want you to become the light of the world”; he says that that is what I already am by belonging to him. But, being salt, I am to be salty, and, being light, I am to shine. What a challenge! And I cannot meet it except by virtue of my oneness with Jesus. Only Jesus, in charge of my life, can make me salty. Only the Light of the World lifted high in my heart can make me shine.
Lord Jesus, so fill my life this day that I shine for you and am salt for you in this bit of your world in which you have placed me. Amen.