Jesus told his disciples: “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-14). It’s a temptation to hear these words as requirement rather than blessing, as command rather than commissioning.
Jesus is blessing us to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world. But let’s not make the mistake of thinking this is a pep talk, or Jesus’ version of esteem building. Jesus does not puff up people’s egos or encourage self-indulgent self-esteem, like our society does. He shows us instead our high calling. And at the same time he is challenging us; he is challenging us to grow! We are becoming more salty; we are becoming more shiny. But above all, he is saying to us today: you are a sacred space! Sacred things happen in you and through you because you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Sacred things are happening because of your presence in the world.
“You are the salt of the earth.” These words are meant for you and for me. And salt cannot do its work unless you get the salt out of the shaker. Salt adds flavor and preserves. In the ancient world, salt brought healing; and it still has uses in healing. Jesus’ followers are salt because we add to the taste and beauty of the world. We bring out the flavor and goodness of the world. And we bring healing, through forgiveness and acts of kindness. When you forgive, you heal; you are being the salt of the earth.
But salt is at its best when it doesn’t draw attention to itself. When you add too much salt to food, you taste the salt. You don’t want to taste salt; you want to taste what the salt does to the food, how it enhances the flavor of the food. The right amount of salt brings out the flavor of the food without drawing attention to itself. Like salt, the followers of Jesus do not draw attention to themselves so much as they spice up everything around them. If you’re out there drawing attention to yourself, you’re not being salty in Jesus’ meaning; maybe you’re over-salty. We are not here to draw attention to ourselves, but to add to the work of Christ and bring out the goodness already present in the world.
You are the salt of the earth…and you are the light of the world. The Greek verb is λάμπω. The same verb is used to describe the transfiguration of Christ – ἔλαμψεν τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ ὡς ὁ ἥλιος (Matthew 17:2). Jesus says that his listeners are the “light of the world.” His mission is now their mission. His words and deeds are their words and deeds. The church can only be the light when it reflects the light of Christ.
And just as salt brings out the flavor and goodness, so also light: it illumines and brightens the things that are good in the world and it illumines and exposes and dispels the works of darkness – and that is also part of the mission of Jesus’ disciples.
“You are the salt of the earth… the light of the world.” We read these words in the context of what Jesus spoke immediately before these words, those blessings that we call the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10).
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons and daughters of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Who are ‘salt’ of the earth? They are the humble, the ones who mourn, the meek, and those who thirst after doing what is right in the world. Who are ‘light’? They are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who receive abuse for standing up for what is right.
Salt and light are metaphors that meant much in the ancient world. Today, we have plenty salt, and light comes from flipping a switch. But let’s not miss the power and intent of Jesus’ words.
God is light. Jesus is light. And, Jesus says, so are you!