“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, 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 in heaven.
We have probably all had the experience of being introduced to someone who does not know us, and feeling awkward about the introduction. As we hear ourselves being described, we sense the gap between the person we know ourselves to be, and the kind words being said about us. As a minister, I can tell you I get that a lot.
This awkwardness can just be caused by mis-interpretation. When I was serving at the college in Croatia, I was often introduced as a “professor” which felt pretentious. A professor, to me, has to have an earned doctorate and scholarly publications – which were not true of me. Later I learned that even high school teachers are called “professor” in Slavic languages. So the awkwardness of the introduction was just my mistake.
Nevertheless, we take it seriously when someone tells us who we are. We are powerfully formed by the “you are” messages our parents gave us, both positively and negatively. We watched a film in which a father told his son that he was worthless and would never amount to anything. It can take a lifetime and great suffering to overcome that kind of message.
The more significant a person is to us, especially a parent, but also other relatives, and people who know us, like teachers, or employers, or lovers, or spouses, or even friends, the more weight we give to their “you are” words. The more either affirming and energizing, or the more painful and damaging they are.
So, Jesus, in this very first major public address, takes a Moses-like teaching position in a Moses-like place on a mountain and looks at those unwashed Galilean peasants and pronounces two “you are” messages to them.
Those people are mentally prepared, as we should be also, to take this seriously: this is Jesus saying this. It is even more important to hear who Jesus says we are than to have heard who our parents told us we were, or our spouses, or anybody.
Jesus has just finished the Beatitudes – his statement of “congratulations” to the kinds of people who live the values of the kingdom, like the poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers, and now looks at the people gathered there and says “You are…” I can just imagine them leaning forward a bit to hear how Jesus will identify them.
I was dean of students for a time when I was in Croatia. In those days, an American man showed up fresh out of the French Foreign Legion (long story) who had a drinking problem too big to hide from anybody, but announced that he was done with hurting people and now wanted to help them. He volunteered to work with our humanitarian aid organization serving war refugees.
But one night just after I had gotten ready for bed I got a phone call saying that Larry (not his real name) was outside the front gate of the school, completely drunk, yelling horrible things at the top of his lungs. I, as dean, was the one for the job of dealing with Larry before the police came. Sometimes when you are told that “you are the one for the job” it is both a blessing and not so much of one. Larry had told me what he had done to people in drunken bar fights, and I was, frankly, afraid. But I was dean, so I went. (He calmed down).
In a similar way, the two “you are” statements that Jesus makes both come with two sides to them. They are both true about who we are, but both of them also come with a clearly evident risk of failure.
“You yourselves are” Jesus says with as much emphasis as language allows, “the very salt of the earth.” So far, so good. Salt is indispensable. Being told you are indispensable starts making you feel important and worthwhile. Your life has a purpose. You are here for something that you, yourself must do – it’s crucial to the whole earth.
In the same way, the second: “You yourselves are the very light of the world” which sounds nice, but, like an awkward introduction, says way too much. Nevertheless, he said it. Light, even more than salt is indispensable. What could grow without light? How could we manage life inside or outside without light?
The Galilean peasants hearing this are asking themselves questions: What is it that we have that the world so desperately needs? What future for us could Jesus possibly be imagining, that our role will be so important in that he stretches up to the sky itself and calls us the light of the world?
The Other Alternative
But the flip side of the coin has to be considered even before we can start imagining how good it is going to be. The side that suggests failure as a real possibility.
“You yourselves are indispensable: the very salt of the earth” Jesus tells us, but un-salty salt is as good for your body as eating gypsum. In fact it’s the opposite of indispensable: it’s worthless.
The same with light. “You yourselves are indispensable: the very light of the world” Jesus says. But on the other hand, it is possible to imagine conditions in which the most absurd and pointless thing happens: a lamp is lit, but instead of putting in on a stand to illumine the house, some fool covers it up with a basket. How pointless would that be?
You are indispensable – that’s who you are: but it could all go wrong. So, hearing this, the people are now saying to themselves, “Oh no! Are we on a fools errand here? Is this project of the kingdom of God doomed to failure from the outset?”
The next thing Jesus says is beautiful and hopeful.
“In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
“In the same way” – picturing the guy in the house lighting a lamp and putting it on a stand – “let your light shine before others.” It sounds so passive to say, “let it shine” – the word here is actually an imperative, which is why, in The Message version it is translated simply, “Shine!”
But that is exactly what a burning flame in an oil lamp does naturally: it shines. Shining is the normal state; in fact it takes extra effort for someone to try to stop it. He has to go get a basket and cover it up if he wants it to not have the effect it naturally has.
This is so hopeful. The “You ares” are not “try to be” or “after 10,000 hours of practice you may finally manage to be something useful.”
No! The opposite! God made you. You have a purpose. You are indispensable. You are as indispensable as salt is to mammals and as light is to the world. God made you to be and to do good. “Now,” Jesus is calling to us, “get on with it!”
This is a grace-based calling. God has already given you everything you need to be an indispensable player in the Kingdom project.
So, what comes next? What’s the plan for the salt and light crew? What does Jesus say? Is it:
– Get this doctrine down, know it, and condemn the heretics who hold a different view? or
– Build me a lavish building, in fact an institution? or
– Go on a moral crusade against the kind of people whom your natural instincts tell you are disgusting?
– Or the many, many things the church, throughout the centuries, has become known and even famous for doing and being?
How indispensable would any of those things be to the world?
But how much does the world need people who are willing to be poor in spirit – recognizing our mutual dependence on each other, on the planet, and on God?
How much does the world need people who are so hungry and thirsty for justice that they do not stop working for it until justice is done?
How much does the world need people who mourn for every example of suffering and so, are motivated to respond with compassion and care?
How much does the world need people who are willing to be meek instead of aggressive with each other? Who are forgiving, and who have learned do the hard work of living long in a community of other fallible people, instead of bailing out at the first offense or conflict?
How can humanity survive without people with pure hearts and motives who are willing to be merciful and to be peacemakers, and are even willing to suffer persecution for doing the right thing?
You are those people, Jesus is saying. You are that indispensable. Now, Shine, for goodness sake!
The world is watching. It always watches.
The Sadness and the Hope
There is both a sadness and a remaining hope. The sadness is that most of the world in the West does not think that the church is indispensable to them at all. This is because it has been watching, and seeing.
The hope is that “it ain’t over ‘till it’s over” and, thankfully, it is not over yet. As someone said, if you are still breathing there is more right with you than wrong with you – and we are still breathing.
In our deepest selves, because we have been made in God’s image and we have been baptized into God’s kingdom, God’s family, we all have the light of goodness to shine. It’s there!
As long as we don’t smother it up with our false selves, our pretensions and pettiness, as long as we don’t hide the light behind walls of greed or hedonism, as long as we don’t extinguish it with violent words (or worse) it is there, to shine.
The world – starting with our families, our church, and our community, and including our planet itself – needs the light of us being good instead of making excuses. Nobody has ever believed our excuses for not being good, anyway. Nor should they.
“let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”