Seward United Methodist Church
Sunday, September 20, 2020
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Salt & Light

Matthew 5:13-20

This is a pretty familiar saying of Jesus: You are the salt of the earth. But do we understand what it means?

For starters, Jesus doesn’t say, “You should be the salt of the earth,” or “You can be the salt of the earth.” He says, “You are the salt of the earth.” It is our identity as his followers. Are we living into our identity? And what does it mean to be salt?

First of all, salt was an image of purity. Pure salt is a glistening white substance. As such, it conjured images of purity. A Christ-follower should be pure, unadulterated. We should be filled with God and not with the world.

Second, salt is necessary for life. Without salt, our bodies can’t function. So we should bring life to the world around us by bringing God to the world around us.

Third, salt is a preservative. This is a world 19 centuries removed from refrigeration. If you want to keep meat or fish edible for more than a day or two, salt was one of the few options. Some of Jesus’ disciples were fishermen, so they knew all about salting their catch to preserve it for shipment to Jerusalem or another city far from any lake or ocean. Salt prevents decay. We should prevent decay. We should keep the world from sliding down a path of rebellion against God by our positive influence on the world.

And finally, salt helps to bring out the best flavor of food. We should bring out the best in life. We should make life better by bringing peace, joy, hope, and goodness wherever we go.

What does it mean for salt to lose its saltiness? There are two explanations I’ve encountered.

One is that much of the salt used in Judea and Galilee was from the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea has a lot of salt in it, but it also has a lot of impurities in it. If the salt wasn’t properly stored, if it got too moist, then the salt would leach out and leave only the impurities. And they were worthless.

The second explanation I’ve heard is that first century people would line the floor of their ovens with salt because the salt would retain heat. But over time, this salt would be “used up,” and it would have to be replaced.

I don’t know which one Jesus meant, but the meaning in both cases is the same in both cases, and it was a frequent teaching of Jesus: Uselessness invites disaster. If a disciple is not useful to God, that disciple is in trouble. If God’s Kingdom is not coming into the world through us, then we are not serving our function.

Next Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.” Many Jews referred to Jerusalem as the light of the world, a city on a hill. And of course, Jesus used it to refer to himself. And if we are in Christ, then we are also the light of the world.

Light represents truth and goodness. Light is a guide. It helps us find our way. And light is powerful. Just a small amount of light can pierce an enormous amount of darkness. What I’ve heard is that a person with 20/20 vision can see a single candle from 20 miles away in perfect darkness.

Light is not meant to be hid. It’s meant to be seen. We hide our light when we continue in sin and disobedience. We hide our light when we hide our faith. There is no such thing as secret discipleship, for secrecy destroys discipleship. We hide our light when we go along with the world to get along with the world. In first century Jewish homes, the oil lamps were placed up high on lamp stands or in alcoves cut into the walls so they could light up as much as possible.

Jesus says, “Let your good deeds be seen.” The Greek word used here is KALOS, which means not just good but attractive, beautiful. Our good deeds should bring honor to God, make God more attractive to the world.

But elsewhere, Jesus says not to do our good deeds so as to be seen. I think context is the key. Are we trying to bring glory to God or to ourselves by our actions? Our living should cause people to praise God. We are salt and light by the power of Jesus’ words. The question is whether or not we are living into that reality.

Jesus goes on, “I have not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.” A Jewish rabbi would say the Law is abolished when we disobey it, because then we are rebelling against the authority of God.

Well, first things first, what is the Law? In certain contexts, the Law refers to the Ten Commandments, other times it refers to the first five books of the Old Testament, and still other times to the whole Old Testament. Muddying the waters more, many rabbis in Jesus’ day used Law to refer not only to the Old Testament but also to all the

oral and written traditions built up around the Old Testament. There was the Mishnah, which was four volumes of commentary on the Law. Then there were the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, which were enormous commentaries on the Mishnah. Together they represented about 70 volumes of endless details and regulations around the Law. It was an endless search for precision. And it had made keeping the Law far too complicated and difficult for anyone to do.

And there was also a high degree of “keeping the letter of the Law versus the spirit of the Law.” For example, Jesus criticized the Pharisees and others for their use of the Corban Law. Corban meant devoted to God. According to the rabbis, if a man in a moment of anger said to his elderly parents, “Whatever help you might have received from me is Corban,” then he was forbidden to help them for the rest of their lives. The letter of the Law had preempted the spirit of the Law, which is, “Honor your father and mother.” It was external obedience over internal obedience.

Jesus said, “Not one jot or tittle will disappear from the Law.” These words referred to the smallest letters and details of the Hebrew alphabet. “I have not come to destroy it but to fulfill it.”

What does that mean? When we read the Old Testament Law, we find three different kinds of laws. There are moral laws, such as murder, theft, and sexual immorality. These are still in force. For one thing, we find most of them repeated in Jesus’ words or elsewhere in the New Testament. And it’s not like right and wrong change over time. Some people think they do, but they don’t.

Second, we find ceremonial laws, such as laws about sacrifices. Well, these are no longer in effect because Jesus fulfilled them. Sacrifices are not necessary because Jesus offered the one true sacrifice.

And third, we find cultural or civil laws. These were things like circumcision, a kosher diet, dress codes, and practices that meant a lot to ancient Israelites but often mean nothing to us. Are they in effect? I think not. The Church decided that Gentile converts didn’t have to be circumcised. After Peter’s vision, he understood a kosher diet was not required for a Christ-follower.

We might disagree about whether or not a particular law belongs in one category or another. For example, the Old Testament forbade marking one’s body for the dead. Does that mean Christians shouldn’t get tattoos? Well, it depends whether it’s immoral

to get a tattoo or just a cultural practice Israel was not to participate in. But most Christians agree this is how we should understand the Old Testament.

Jesus didn’t lower the bar. He didn’t make it easier. He said our righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees. I think the issue is that they were so focused on external obedience to the letter of the Law they missed the real point, which is a change of heart and mind.

Jesus summarized the whole Law as love God with all your being and love your neighbor as yourself. We love God through obedience. We love our neighbor by seeking the good of our neighbor.

A law can be satisfied easily. “Do not murder.” Okay. Done. But love of God and neighbor can’t be easily satisfied. It’s not enough that I just not murder my neighbor, I have to do good for him or her.

Jesus made the Law simpler, but he never made it easier.

Verse of the Day...