The gospel reading for today implies two fundamental questions of life: Who are we? And. What are we to do with our lives? These questions underlie the consciousness of every human being. What does it mean to be followers of Jesus Christ in our day and time? How are we to live as citizens of this new realm that God has inaugurated in Jesus called the Kingdom of God.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is his redefining of Israel’s Law or Torah. Jesus is the new Moses who has come to complete the law that God had begun in the Hebrew people. God called the people of Israel to be a light to the nations and now Jesus is reinterpreting that call for his followers. Jesus’ disciples are taking up the mantle of God’s people to be the light of the world.
Jesus uses two metaphors to describe who his followers are and what they are to do in the world. The first metaphor is salt, and Jesus is emphatic in his use of the present tense, “you are the salt of the earth.” Not, “you will be,” but “you are!” This is the beginning of Jesus ministry and his followers have not been around him that long and yet he proclaims that they are already the salt of the earth. How did that happen? Simply by virtue of deciding to follow him gives their lives that salty value.
In the ancient world salt was symbolic of endurance and was valued for its use as a preservative. Its religious associations go back to the Old Testament where it is mixed into sacrifices (Ex 30:35) and it was used to consummate covenants (2 Chron 13:5). From these religious associations comes the usage in the saying found in all three Synoptic gospels, "If salt loses its flavor, how shall its saltiness be restored?" This is not some mundane reference to the table salt of today, but a warning to the disciples about the potential to lose their spiritual value, the inner disposition of finding their primary identity in being a Jesus’ follower which enables them to witness to the truth of the gospel.
Jesus gives them and us a distinctive capacity to elicit goodness on this earth as we follow him, and that is the key, as we follow him. Why is it that we symbolically bring the gospel into the midst of the people to read it on Sundays? It is to say that God sent Jesus into our midst to become one of us so that we might become like him. Why do we teach and preach so often about Jesus? It is because he is not only our savior and Lord, but is our pattern for living. All that we do should have the intention of being like Christ. But with the full knowledge that we are always a reflection of the fullness of who he is.
And that leads us to Jesus’ second metaphor, light. “You are the light of the world.” Again the emphatic present tense, you are. Not one day when you’ve become good enough or found all the right answers or haven’t messed up for at least 90 days in a row, then you’ll begin to have a faint flicker of the light you will one day have in heaven. No, you are the light of the world, right now. And remember these people hadn’t been around Jesus as long as most of us have. So what does that say about you and me? We are the light of the world too, in so far as we are following Jesus, surrendering our wills to his will, seeking to shed his light on all those with whom we come in contact.
Light enables us to see things, it illuminates dark places, we feel safer in the light. Followers of Jesus are to be lights in their respective worlds, mirrors that reflect God’s goodness and love, so that everyone we encounter might experience God’s justice and mercy. We are lights when we follow Jesus. “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
It is because of who Jesus is and how he understands his mission that his followers are enabled to be salt and light. As he says very plainly to his disciples in this passage, he has not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them, to embody what they have been trying to teach us. Jesus is claiming his place as preeminent in God’s history of the liberation of and covenant with God’s people. By doing so, Jesus extends the mission of God’s chosen people to be a light to the nations, but without dismissing what God had done through the law and the prophets. Jesus was simply bringing a deeper interpretation to what the people had understood up to that point in their history.
Rabbis frequently referred to Torah or the Law as the light of the world, so Jesus’ identification of his disciples with the light of the world reflects this new understanding. Jesus may have been intentionally superceding the authority of Torah with the authority of the new Christian community.
Jesus himself is the key for interpreting the law and the prophets in line with what God is doing in him. That’s why Jesus warns his followers that unless their righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, they will never enter the kingdom. Righteousness refers to the way Jesus interprets the law and lives by it. The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is concerned with the observance of the traditions that have been added to the law, with public displays of piety for the purpose of showing themselves to be superior, and adherence to the letter of the law while disregarding it’s spirit or intent.
Rather, the righteousness of Jesus flows from his relationship with God and in turn is the ground of Jesus’ relationship with his followers. Jesus’ followers are enabled to surpass the pharisaical practices of righteousness because Jesus teaches them that the actions that come from a heart of love and compassion are what please God, not outward performance to please people. Exceeding the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees means that Jesus’ followers seek to live lives that reflect their worship of God and are passionate about being participants in God’s dream for the world. If Jesus’ followers lack this passion for God’s justice and peace in the world, reordering human life to reflect God’s desires, then they have only to look to Jesus to reorient their lives according to God’s purpose.
And that is our purpose every Sunday as we hear God’s good news and are fed at the Lord’s table.