Archive for the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ Category

I think we Christians have largely misappropriated Matthew 5:16: ‘In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.’
We use it as an excuse to promote ourselves and our works, seeking affirmation from the world. Both the ‘right’ and the ‘left’ are guilty – we can do it whether we are standing up for pure doctrine and the rights of unborn children; or the rights of refugees and queer folk and the need to deinstitutionalise the church. All of it can so easily become a waving of our own banner, desperately seeking for someone to say, ‘Hey, you’re a really good, authentic Christian, you know?’
I think Jesus is telling us here that it’s not about us, or even our good works. Light is an image of the Gospel message. That’s the way it’s consistently used throughout the Scriptures. When God makes himself known – as He has done clearly in Jesus Christ – it is a Light shining into the darkness of human sin and despair.
Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will be seen upon you.
And nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising.
Isaiah 60:1-3
Notice here who Israel’s ‘Light’ is? The Lord, whose glory has risen, like the sun, upon them. What will attract the nations to Israel is not Israel themselves, but the fact that the Lord is among them. This is essentially the Gospel message:
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
Mark 1:14-15
Both Light and Salt (Matthew 5:13) are primarily images of what God has done to redeem and restore His people. To be the ‘light of the world’ (and the ‘salt of the earth’) is essentially to be the heralds of this Good News.
So what has this to do with our good works? Notice that when we are letting our light shine, people will come to a particular conclusion about our works. And this is the point of what Jesus is saying – not so much that they will see our good works, but that their response will be to give glory to the Father.
You see, our works will always be seen, whether we like it or not. We know this all too well right now, as institutional churches in the West are being dragged through the mud of their own failure to protect women and children in their midst. In this case, the world is seeing our evil works, and the name of the Father is being profaned among them, just as in the days of the Exile:
I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed through the countries. In accordance with their ways and their deeds I judged them. But when they came to the nations, wherever they came, they profaned my holy name, in that people said of them, ‘These are the people of the Lord, and yet they had to go out of his land.’
Ezekiel 36:19-20
Yahweh had judged his own people by exposing their sin and shame to the world, sending them into exile, where people saw them and said, ‘What kind of god do you have? Yo must not think much of Him, if you are going to dishonour Him so much that you must be vomited out of the land He gave you!’ Sound familiar?
The solution to this, we think, is to work on restoring our reputation in the world. To start doing good works, and to point to them and say, ‘See, we’re not that bad after all. You should trust and like us again. Please. We don’t want our churches to get small and die. Please come back?’ But this will not work, on two counts.
Firstly, the horse has already well and truly bolted. Christendom is dead, and people are no longer interested in being part of the church simply as a social or cultural club – which, if we are honest, has always been a fair chunk of the church-going population in the West for the last 1000+ years. We can no longer expect the church to be an institution that is endorsed by the state and society. Thankfully, Christianity in the West is gradually reverting back to the grass-roots, countercultural movement it has always been.
Secondly, even if we end up doing a good job at our good works, and an even better job at marketing ourselves and our good works; even if many people in the world say to us, ‘OK church, we see that you’ve been trying harder, and we’re prepared to trust you again; you can come back into the clubhouse,’ then we will simply have a lot of people giving glory to us, not to our Father in Heaven.
Out task is not to hold out our good works; it is to hold out the light of the Gospel. This Gospel tells us that the Father is so full of mercy and grace that He even perseveres with and forgives the vile, hypocritical sinner who goes about profaning His name with their lives. This Gospel tells us that while judgement begins with the house of God (1 Peter 4:17, Amos 3:2), it is so that mercy might flow out to the nations. It tells us that Jesus Christ died not only for his friends, but also for his enemies.
This is a Gospel that can only be proclaimed faithfully when it’s proclaimed in humility, by people who know that they are great sinners, but Jesus is an even greater Saviour. When we are in this place, we should not even want to wave the flag of our own works, because we know that apart from grace even our righteousness is like filthy rags.
This light of the Gospel will not lead people to say, ‘You are good people, because you do good things.’ It will cause them to say, ‘Your Father is a good Father, because He does good things – and if He can do good things even through you weak, hypocritical, compromised Christians, then maybe his grace in Jesus Christ is big enough to do something good in me?’ The Gospel will make people see that the basis for knowing God is not our good works – because no matter how good we think our works are, they will always fall short – but that it is the grace of Jesus Christ that says, ‘I will remember their sins no more’ (Jeremiah 31:34).
For too long we have misappropriated Matthew 5:16, and made the Gospel out to be a moralising message of, ‘Don’t do that, or God will be angry with you; do this, and God will be happy with you – just like us good Christians.’ A true appropriation of Mathew 5:16 is to say with Paul:
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.
1 Timothy 1:15
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(Image from sacredsandwich.com)

You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:13-16

The images of salt and light are often referred to by preachers who are trying to spur their people into action by living out their faith in the world. Salt and light are a reference to our good living, they say, which will serve to proclaim the Gospel even if we don’t get to use words.

The connection between light and works is there – although I don’t think it means, ‘Do your good works in a way that people will notice them.’ It’s more about the Father getting the credit, not us.

But salt?

I’ve never been convinced by the two most common explanations for this reference to salt: That it adds flavour, and that it is a preservative. Both are used to teach that Christians, by having a faithful presence in the world, will have a ‘flavoursome’ and ‘preserving’ effect on our culture, and that our good work will contribute to the common good.

It is certainly true that the Judeo-Christian ethic has had a positive effect on cultures in which the Gospel has been preached and received. And this positive effect is often referred to by those seeking to defend our society against the current moral decay.

But I’m still not convinced that this is what Jesus meant. I feel a little as if it’s imposing our modern experiences – after 2000 years of western history – on the text.

Looking through the Old Testament (Jesus’ primary text – on which he based all his teaching!), there are multiple references to salt. If we ignore those that are references to geography (eg. the ‘Salt Sea’, the ‘Valley of Salt’), there are two main types of references to salt:

1. As a picture of judgement. We are all familiar with Lot’s wife who turned into salt at the judgement of Sodom. (Genesis 19:26). A salty land unable to grow crops was considered cursed (Deuteronomy 29:23), and defeated cities were ‘sown with salt’ (Judges 9:45) to signify their barrenness.

2. As a sign of the covenant. Salt was used throughout the Tabernacle sacrificial system. It was in the incense (Exodus 30:35) that symbolised the prayers of the people; and all offerings were to be seasoned with salt, from grain right through to animals; it was, ‘the salt of the covenant with your God,’ which was not to, ‘be missing.’ (Leviticus 2:13, cf. Ezekiel 43:24). The Priests were told that the parts of sacrifices they were to eat were, ‘…a covenant of salt forever before the Lord for you and for your offspring with you.’ (Numbers 18:19). David and his descendants’ position of kingship over Israel was given, ‘by a covenant of salt.’ (2 Chronicles 13:5). Elisha, in his first miraculous act after succeeding Elijah, put salt into the water supply of Jericho to heal the water and make it fresh (1 Kings 2:19-22) – one of the signs demonstrating that he was a Man of God, bringing the Word of the Lord to His people.

We’re not told exactly why salt was to be used in this way, but it’s fair enough to assume that if the only other significance of salt was judgement & curse, then its use in the sacrificial system signified the judgement that was to fall upon the sacrifice in the worshipper’s place; in that sense, salt signifies the work of atonement that is at the heart of the establishment of the covenant between God and His people.


Back to Jesus now, on the side of a hill, telling Jewish people – whose faith was centred around the sacrificial system in the temple – that they are to be ‘salt of the earth’. What would their minds immediately have gone to, if not the, ‘salt of the covenant with your God’?

They were to be the means by which the covenant made with Abraham their father, would become a covenant with those from every tribe, tongue and nation. When God told Abraham that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him, he was talking about covenant – since blessing is a covenantal term.

Their very existence as an ethnic, political and religious group was for the purpose of the covenant coming to you and me – or should I say, you and I being brought into the covenant, to be included along with Abraham and all his children. ‘The Earth’ and ‘The World’ are references to the Gentiles who would be gathered from every nation through the Gospel going out in the Spirit’s power. So the two pictures of salt of the earth, and light of the world, convey this sense that the blessing Israel knew was to pervade the world like salt does food and light a dark room. (In Isaiah 42:6 tells God’s people that they are to be a light to the nations – a sign of the covenant.)

Israel was supposed to be this covenant salt, but failed in their mandate. And they were always going to fail – it was God’s purpose that they as a nation should fail, because His plan from the beginning was to bring forth from this broken, failed and sinful people the True Israelite, His Beloved First Born Son (see Exodus 4:22), the Great High Priest who would offer the perfect sacrifice, seasoned with the real – not symbolic – salt of God’s judgement, in order to confirm the ‘covenant of salt’ not only with Jews but with all who would have faith in Him.