“Salt of the Earth, Light of the World” (Matthew 5:13-16)
Our text today is a portion of the Holy Gospel, reading again from verses 13-16 of Matthew 5: “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.” This is our text. And so our theme this morning: “Salt of the Earth, Light of the World.”
Salt and light. This is what Jesus tells his disciples they are. This is what Jesus is telling us that we are, namely, salt and light. “You are the salt of the earth.” “You are the light of the world.” Yes, you. That’s who you are. Let’s find out how and why and what difference this makes in our lives and what difference this makes in the world around us.
First, though, let’s remember the context for these sayings. Our text today follows right upon our text from last week, the Beatitudes, at the start of the Sermon on the Mount. Remember that it is Jesus saying these things, and he is saying them to his disciples. That makes all the difference. Who Jesus is, and who we are by virtue of being his disciples–this is critical to understanding what Jesus is saying. You see, these teachings here are Jesus-specific. They’re based on who Christ is and what he does for us and who we are as a result. It’s not just some generic advice about how to live a nice life. Rather, it is rooted in Christ and our identity–our new identity–in him.
It all starts with Jesus. Who he is and what he comes to do–that is at the base of everything. Jesus is God with us, born to save us from our sins. Jesus is the beloved Son of God, anointed with the Holy Spirit–the Messiah, come to fulfill God’s righteous plan of redeeming sinful mankind. He will do this by identifying with us sinners and taking our sins to the cross, bearing our shame and our guilt and our punishment in our place, suffering death under God’s judgment, so we don’t have to.
We were dwelling in darkness and in the shadow of death. We didn’t what we were doing, with respect to God or ourselves or what life is all about. Our head wasn’t screwed on straight. But on us a light has dawned. Jesus comes among us, and he calls us to repent: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” We acknowledge our sins and turn from them. We look to Jesus for this kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, to be manifested. Then we hear his authoritative, inviting voice, calling to each one of us and saying, “Follow me.” We leave our nets and our fishing boats, and we follow him. There is something compelling about this man.
This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. It is to follow him in faith, to learn from him, to hear his voice and heed it. Only in this light can we understand his teaching properly. If you don’t have Jesus, none of this applies. But with Christ–joined to Jesus in baptism and following him in faith–now our life takes on new meaning.
Last week Jesus gave us the Beatitudes, those statements and promises of blessedness for his followers. Being his disciples, our lives will take on the character of being poor in spirit and pure in heart, of being humble toward God and meek and merciful toward others. Of being peacemakers. Jesus assures us that even when such a life puts us at a disadvantage in the world, realize that we are truly blessed by God. Ours is the kingdom of heaven, even now. And in the age to come, we will be fully comforted and satisfied. So rejoice and be glad.
In that perspective, then, with that encouragement to enliven us and with that hope to embolden us, now we can hear about being salt and light. “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says. “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.”
What is it about salt that Jesus is comparing us to here? Apparently, it has something to do with salt having a distinctive taste. For if it loses that distinctive taste, it is no longer good or useful as salt.
What is it about us Christians that makes us distinctive in the world, that gives us our particular “taste”? It is that we are followers of Jesus. Faith in Christ sets us apart and makes us who we are. Lose that, and you are no longer special. But live in that distinctiveness, and you and I have something to offer the world and the people around us. They should be able to “taste” how we are different.
When people rub up against you and interact with you, can they tell there is something different about you? In a good way? That would be your saltiness as a Christian. The Christian faith flavors and accents your life.
In the parallel passage in Mark 9:50, we gain a little more insight into what this saltiness is. There Jesus says: “Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Being at peace with one another–that is part of our saltiness. The world is full of conflict and strife. People bear grudges against one another and don’t let go. But Christians are all about forgiveness and peace. God has forgiven us for Christ’s sake. So we forgive one another. God has made peace with us by the cross of Christ. So we seek peace with others. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus says, “for they shall be called sons of God.” We reflect the character of our heavenly Father when we seek and make peace with one another. That is in our DNA as salty Christians.
Another aspect I think we find is in Colossians 4:6, where St. Paul writes: “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” Here our saltiness has to do with how we speak. We let wisdom season our speech, so that graciousness marks how we talk to others. Harsh words, angry unwise words–these we guard against. Instead, our Christian faith informs our speech, the fruit of the Spirit tempers our tongue. We speak differently. Our manner of speech has a Jesus accent. Again, this is what gives us our salty distinctiveness as disciples of Jesus.
“You are the salt of the earth.” “You are the light of the world.” This is the other thing that Jesus is saying to us today. “But Pastor,” you say, “I thought Jesus is the light of the world. It says that in the Bible, I know it. How can Jesus say then that we are the light of the world?” Well, it’s both. Jesus of course is The Light of the world. He is the light who shines in the darkness and gives life to men. We cannot generate any light on our own or give life to anyone, ourselves included. But having received the light of Christ, now we reflect and radiate that light out to others.
And that is our calling. Let’s not shy away from it. We have light that we have received that is powerful and life-giving. It is the light of the gospel. God intends for us to shine it out to the world. “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.”
Don’t hide your Christian life. Let it shine. Let the world know what gives you life. The saving gospel, the good news of Christ, isn’t just good for you. It’s good for everybody. All people in the world need what we have. Through individual one-on-one conversations–you talking with the people you know, your friends and family members–you have opportunity to spread the light, like a lamp shining in a room. And through the church’s gospel ministry–through this congregation’s preaching and teaching ministry, and through the church at large and around the world–we are helping to spread the light of Christ in a sin-darkened world. And the darkness has not overcome it.
“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Gasp! “Pastor, you just said the word, ‘good works’! How could you? I thought us Lutherans were against good works!” Oh no, Lutherans are not against good works. We’re all in favor of them. What we’re against is looking to our works as somehow contributing toward our salvation before God. No way! We are justified by faith apart from works of the law. Jesus has done all the good works we need for that.
But when it comes to our new life in Christ, our new life in the Spirit–there we are all in favor of good works. God has designed and equipped you, God has created you in Christ, to live a life of good works. These are works of love for your neighbor, proceeding from a genuine living faith in Christ. This is what you are built to do. And through your receiving of Word and Sacrament on a constant basis, you are being strengthened and renewed in your life of love and good works. So go for it! You don’t need your good works, but your neighbor sure does. He’s been put in your path for you to love him or her with practical help and encouragement.
And when you love others in this way, the goal is not to get people to praise you. No, the goal is for people to see the distinctive difference in your life that Christ makes. People will see Jesus in and through you. And as a result, people will give praise and thanks and glory to your Father in heaven. I see the many good works that you, my brothers and sisters, are doing–how you love one another and care for one another and are serving in your community–and I thank God for the good work he is doing in you and through you.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, you are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. That is who you are. Jesus makes it so. Embrace your identity as his disciples. God has created you to be salt and light. So go ahead and be who you are.