By Jesse Wheeler
Principle 2 of the Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct document states:
With regard to Christian Witness, perhaps few other passages are as instrumental in shaping my personal understanding as are Christ’s own words in Matthew 5: 13-16:
13 “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 underfoot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city built upon a hill cannot be hidden. 15 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.
16 “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:13-16).
This seemingly simple statement has long mystified readers. What does it actually mean to be the salt of the earth? Yet when you think about it at its most basic, salt has a powerful, distinctive and at times overwhelming taste to it.
In my research, I came to discover that salt had long been a metaphor for covenant faithfulness. So, when God rescued the Hebrews from their slavery in Egypt, he made a covenant, a contract, setting them apart as his own holy people. They were to be distinct from the other nations. They were to act different, look different, and be different. They were to show the world that there was a different way to live, neither as slave nor slave driver, a way defined by love for God and love of neighbor.
And, this is exactly what Jesus is telling his disciples to be. Disciples of Christ are to offer an alternative, a new way to be human not conformed to the destructive, violent, and sinful patterns of this world. We are to be a community defined instead by self-sacrificial love. We are to be a community defined by the cross of our messiah.
We are to be salt. Yet, what happens when salt loses its saltiness? It loses its very purpose for being. It loses that which makes it distinct.
It becomes dirt.
We may construct as many colossal monuments to our own sectarian self-importance upon as many hills as we like, but if we in no way stand distinct from the destructive patterns of this world then what’s the point? We might as well keep our mouths shut and our witness to ourselves, because our faith “is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”
Yet at the time of Jesus, many contemporaneous religious groups began to take the idea of being salt to the extremes, with some groups completely withdrawing themselves from society. They were distinct. They were “holy.” But, as Jesus makes clear in Matthew 5:14, they were “holy” to the point of worthlessness.
So, Jesus tells us in verse 14:
14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 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.”
Simply imagine the sublime power of a single candle piercing, shattering the darkness of a pitch-black room. Yet if you cover the candle up, it goes dim. What’s the point?
Sometimes we religious people get so focused on holiness, on separateness that we no longer have a viable, credible witness for our communities or the world. We become so fearful of that which is different, of that which doesn’t have a “Christian” label on it, or of that which isn’t securely within our “Christian” neighborhoods and behind our “Christian” walls. We construct defenses, both ideological and concrete, to safeguard us from God’s beautiful world and the beautiful people living within it, beautiful people we have conditioned ourselves to fear (and at times even hate).
As the followers of Jesus, we are to be the light of the world. So, we mustn’t fear “the dark.”
It is imperative for us to tear down the walls, to cross the barriers, and to be present and active in our neighborhoods and cities. Having been washed clean once and for all by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have no need to fear being “contaminated” by the so called “uncleanness” of our world. We are called to fully embrace the other, those not like us, in love.
To be the light of the world is not to condemn, withdraw or shy away from the world, but to actively pursue the dark places, to willingly enter into places of pain, poverty and injustice, of sickness, of violence, and of sin…in imitation of Christ himself…in order to bring the light, love, justice, and peace of God to those people and places where it is needed the most.
As followers of Jesus, this is our mission. This is our witness.
So in verse 15, Jesus tells us:
16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
Most simply, we are to hear the words of Jesus and put them into practice. We are to imitate Jesus, such that when we hear his words and put them into practice, people will see our good deeds and give glory to our Father in heaven.
Our salt, therefore, stays salty only so long as we practice the good deeds we do in imitation of Christ, shining the light of God in and amongst our community and before the watching world. For as the watching world watches us, it is our hope that they cannot help but be drawn to the overwhelming light, justice and love of our King and savior, Christ Jesus.
Key exegetical insights found in: Glen Stassen and David P Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Contexts, (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2003) 467-491, N.T. Wright, 12 Months of Sundays: Reflections on Bible Readings – Year C, (London: Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, 2000) Kindle Edition, and Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013) Kindle Edition.