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Being The Salt and Light, Matt 5:13-16
To recap: Jesus began a revolution of the Kingdom of Heaven (KOH). Matthew shows Jesus giving his inaugural teaching in Matt 5 – 7: Living life in the KOH, God’s new covenant with his people. His “blessed be’s” describe those receiving the KOH (those blessed with comfort, fulfillment, inheritance, mercy, seeing God, declared God’s children, etc) rather than prescribing virtues to be attained in order to be God’s Kingdom people. Jesus ends the beatitudes with those who suffer persecution as the prophets did (Matt 5:11-12); i.e. he saw his KOH movement as fulfilling the prophetic tradition, being the “salt & light” to Israel and the nations.
The repeated “you” in v13 and v14 is emphatic: YOU and only YOU are the salt and light! But, Jesus’ main point in this text is simple: if we do NOT actually live like disciples of the KOH (true followers and apprentices of Jesus), if we do NOT live like the true Israel God intended, then we are worth about as much as tasteless salt and hidden light.
Salt was used to flavor food. It was also a preservative and purifying agent – to stop meat from decaying, to cleanse a wound. When impure salt, taken from the Dead Sea for example, lost its saltiness, then it was added to soil as manure. Real salt did not lose its properties – it’s flavor and sting. But what did Jesus mean by “being the salt” in society?
In teaching the new covenant, the Messianic Torah, rabbi Jesus probably alluded to salt as the sign of the covenant as referred to in Lev 2:13, Num 18:19, 2Chron 13:5. If so, Jesus saw his followers as the salt of the new covenant promised by Jeremiah (Jer 31:31-34, God’s word is written on our hearts and minds by the Holy Spirit, enabling us to do God’s will). This means that our presence in society, as followers of Jesus, positively flavors it, making the nation acceptable and palatable to God. Godly convictions, values and behavior, restrain and prevent the rot from taking over – “the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (2Pet 1:4). I.e. we stand for God’s Rule of truth, righteousness, justice, mercy. THAT stings the conscience of society and ‘the powers’ that be – as did the Hebrew prophets, and Jesus, who all suffered and died for their witness to God’s government. We model the future KOH now, showing society and earthly and spiritual powers God’s intended way of living, challenging wrongdoing, speaking truth to power.
However, Jesus’ point is that real salt does not lose its saltiness, otherwise it is spurious! BUT, if we don’t live out our true nature and calling as Jesus’ disciples, we’re “thrown out and trodden under foot.” Is Jesus saying we become ‘manure’? No! More likely, as a typical Rabbi, he is quoting Isaiah 5:5, 10:6, 26:6, 28:3,18, 63:3, warning of judgement. I.e. the godly remnant in Israel made the nation palatable to God. But as they lost their sting and the stench of Israel’s sin rose to heaven, God judged Israel. She was overrun by warfare, trodden under foot and exiled. Jesus is saying: if WE don’t fulfill our prophetic role and witness, corruption spreads to the point where society is no longer palatable to God (even Jesus speaks of spitting out a church! Rev 3:16). Then the nation comes under God’s judgement, the church included, suffering civil unrest and even violent revolution under “the feet of the oppressed, the footsteps of the poor” (Isaiah 26:6).
Jesus saw himself and his community of followers as fulfilling Israel’s call to be “the light of the world” (Isaiah 42:6, 49:6 cf. Matt 4:16, Jn 8:12, Eph 5:8-9). Like salt, it has a positive and negative role: God’s light of life and truth shows society the way to live under God’s government, the KOH. At the same time the light exposes and drives back the moral darkness of evil deception and corruption. His point is simple: the light is NOT to be hidden! It must shine for all to see! If we don’t live out our true nature and calling as the light of God’s saving rule and reign – by hiding it, keeping it to ourselves – we lose our reason for existence and live in the dark.
The light is our “good deeds” in society: living God’s love in actual works of mercy, righteousness, justice, peace-making. Therefore, “let your light shine…!” Jesus’ reference to the light as “a city on a hill” was readily understood, because most towns were built on hills and could be seen at night from far away. This was especially true of Jerusalem, God’s city of peace & justice, where he was understood to reside and to rule from his Holy Temple. The light of Jerusalem was thus not only literal – the biggest and brightest city in Israel – but was meant to be the light of God’s government over Israel, for all the nations of the world to see. If Jesus was alluding to this, then he saw his disciples as the new Jerusalem in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies in this regard; see Isaiah 2:2-5 cf. Isaiah 42:6, 49:6.