Epiphany 5A – Matthew 5:13-20; Salt & Light, Law and the Prophets

Epiphany 5A – Matthew 5:13-20; Salt & Light, Law and the Prophets February 12, 2014

This is the sermon I preached last week at my church Redemption Church. If you are a pastor feel free to copy & steal everything.

Epiphany 5A – Matthew 5:13-20
2014.02.09 – Light Will Shine 06

This week I got sucked into this book Salt: A World History… Have you heard of this book? Mark Kurlansky tells the entire known history of salt. It’s a fascinating read. In the book he tells this French folktale about a princess who told her father, “I love you like salt, “ which the king took as an insult. So he banish¬ed his own daughter. From the realm. Until one day they experienced a salt shortage, and he realized the value of salt, and he realized his daughter’s remark was sincere, and she was allowed back into his good graces. His whole point is that it’s easy to take salt for granted.

Kurlansky says, “Salt is so common, so easy to obtain, and so inexpensive that we have forgotten that from the beginning of civilization until about 100 years ago, salt was one of the most sought after commodities in human history.” For thousands of years salt represented wealth. Is that wild? Now it represents… I don’t know… The difference between Georgia & Kansas when there’s an ice storm? It’s called salt; you put it on the roads…then you can drive.

In the ancient world, evil spirits were thought to be warded off by salt & it was among the first commodities ever traded. Sometime around 10 thousand years ago the 1st dogs were domesticated and they accomplished this by using salt. They would leave salt out for the dogs to lick, then began to leave food. Soon they’d be the only food source, and they’d begin to approach the dogs, closer and closer until they were eating out of their hands. Then they’d steal a puppy, or a puppy would just follow them home. They’d get used to the people. The pups that were more naturally docile stayed with the people, were bread, and over time were domesticated. All of our domesticated animals like cows, goats, and other livestock were domesticated with this process and it all starts with salt.

Salt was a major political factor: The city of Rome was founded where it is because of its close proximity to the salt works of the day. The first great Roman road was the Via Salaria the way of salt or the “Salt Road.” Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in salt. And a commander might ask if a solder was “worth his salt.” Our word salary – comes from the Latin sal for salt. Romans were known to salt their greens (where we get the word salad). Romans developed engineering technologies that are still being used to mine or process salt.

Humans cannot live w/out salt. Just like water & food, its deficiency causes headaches & weakness, light-headedness & nausea, eventually death. But with food we get hungry. With water we get thirsty. With salt there is no associated craving, even though salt is a vital nutrient. Salt is in our blood, lymph fluid, all extracellular fluids and is necessary for most metabolic processes. It helps our body regulate fluids & is essential for cardiovascular function & digestion. Without enough salt we will die… not to mention that French fries taste horrible w/out it.

In the ancient world salt was a symbol of fertility… fish lived in salt water & had many more offspring than did land animals. They thought it was to do with the salt in the water. Later European brides and grooms would carry salt on their person to ward off infertility. Romans called a man in love salax – in a “salted state.” (Which is actually the origin of our English word salacious.)

Salt has been a part of the religious customs of nearly every religion known to the world. It was an acceptable offering for the Greek gods. It was part of the ancient Egyptian burial rites (mummies). To the Hebrew people salt is the symbol of the covenant with God – a covenant that will never spoil. Numbers 18: “It is an everlasting covenant of salt before the Lord to you and your descendants.” Newborn Hebrew babies were rubbed in salt as sign of covenant – which just sounds itchy doesn’t it? In Islam, salt seals a bargain. In Christianity salt used in Roman Catholic Holy Water, and it is associated wisdom and truth and witness.

So Jesus was paying his followers a huge compliment when he said:

Mt. 5:13-20: “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 lamp 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 in heaven…”

This week I also read part of a book called Fire: a brief history …it was good, but not nearly as fascinating as Salt, I won’t bore you with all the details, except to remind you that fire changed everything. When humans harnessed fire it was a revolution for us and for the planet. None of us can get through a single day w/out fire: We all came here today in vehicles propelled by a very highly engineered & controlled use of fire. The reason it’s not 10 degrees in this room right now is that all over our building are controlled fires called furnaces. Most of the electricity we use is generated by fire. Behind all our technology, if you track it back, you’ll find a fire. In the ancient world, fire was everywhere: cooking, heating, cleaning, safety, warfare, community, religion – all of it depended upon fire.

And these are the 2 images Jesus uses to describe his followers. You are the salt of the earth & the light of the world. …interesting that he doesn’t say “I am the salt/light,” at least not here. He says “You are the salt, the light.” Actually it’s really “ya’ll are,” it’s in the plural. He’s talking about the community, the church not individuals. The way we organize our common life together as a people matters, because it will reach out into our world will be salt/light. These are rich & pliable images…

Salt is such an evocative image: Salt flavors food: It’s not the main taste so much as it brings out the flavors that are already there. The church should bring out the flavors in our world. Salt is a preservative: it keeps things from spoiling and rotting. And it doesn’t take much – a tiny bit of salt flavors whole thing. Everybody doesn’t have to become salt for the salt to do its job. All it takes is just a little bit / makes the whole thing better.

Light is an evocative image, as well: sometime try sitting in total darkness w/only one candle lit in the room. After your eyes get used to dark (10-15 min.), you’ll be amazed at how much light one little candle gives off. You can read by it – no problem. Again, it’s a very small thing, but it has a lot of power. You think of how much the scripture talks of spiritual darkness. Light is this rich image of what the church can be.

So, Jesus is using the images of salt & light in order to stimulate our imagination in response to the deficiency of the world. Is the flavor of the world bland, bitter, sour? Salt can help. Is something rotting? Salt can help that. Is it dark? Is it cold? Are people afraid? – light can help with those things, too. The point of the salt & the light is not the salt and light per se, it’s that they function in response to the deficiency of the world around them… and this is what JS envisions for his church.

But imbedded within the image is a critique – a kind of warning: “…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… a city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house.”

Understanding the warning is actually somewhat complicated. As we dig into it, we’ll see why these images are connected to the next section, which says. “…do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Okay so what is Jesus doing here? All of the sudden he’s on about the law & the prophets. He’s drilling the Pharisees. What’s going on?

Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.” This word abolish (kataluo), means “to destroy or subvert.” It’s the opposite of “building up” (oikodomeo). Matthew would often use this word in regard to the temple. The temple will kataluo but not the law… the law will last.

Jesus says, “I have come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.” To fulfill it (pleroo), to bring it to its appropriate completion. To make it serve its intended purpose here and now, today.

So in this whole Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is reinterpreting the law. He doesn’t want to get rid of it, he’s trying to change the way people observe it, so that it will do what it’s meant to do to them, and in turn to the whole world. He says, ”…not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” Jesus isn’t getting rid of the law. He’s redefining obedience to the law. And he’s got a specific ax to grind.

Jesus says this curious line that’s actually critical for us. He says: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes & Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” What does he mean?

Jesus’s whole conflict with the Pharisees seems to have been about what it means to keep the law. They both thought the law was important. They both wanted everybody to keep it as central to the life of the people of God. But, Pharisees had developed a highly complex oral tradition, an oral teaching passed down generation to generation. And it was all about the keeping of the law perfectly, and it was a tight system. (some of us love tight systems) They were highly invested in it… they were just sure: Their interpretation was the only valid interpretation.They actively & even violently opposed any other teaching. They kept tabs on who was with them & who was against them. They spent much of their energy creating in group / out group, and then doing boundary maintenance.

The problem with their oral tradition, their way of keeping Torah, was that it counted too many people out – especially the poor. Most people just didn’t have the resources to pull it off. They didn’t have the time or the money to do it. So instead of helping people to observe the law (which is supposedly what the Pharisees wanted to do!) Their tradition actually prevented people from observing law. They made the goal so high nobody could get there. Jesus seems to have thought they were missing the whole point. He says they are “straining gnats & swallowing camels.” In our day we’d say “they can’t see the forest for all the trees.” The have lost the big picture. So when the Pharisees are in charge, the law doesn’t do what it’s meant to do it excludes too many people – they can’t be salt & light. They can’t respond to the deficiencies of the world, and Jesus, wants the story of God to impact more people – the entire world in fact.

So Jesus begins to teach his followers that the law was never meant to be a way to placate God… to get God to love & forgive them. God’s love is always free – you can never earn it. The law… was meant to shape them into a peculiar kind of people… who would be distinct… The law was meant to form their character in a particular way. So that when people look at Israel, they see the image of God. Not even for their own benefit – for benefit of the world! Remember, the covenant was “You’ll be blessed to be a blessing!”

But in the hands of immature people the law became about who was in, who was out, & keeping track; they lost their saltiness… put a bowl over their light. Now, because we’ve been raised to dislike the Pharisees, we are likely to forget that we all have this tendency. We all have some Pharisee blood pumping thru our veins… this tendency to overemphasize boundaries, to think in very black & white terms / in and out terms. Conveniently we are always in and those we dislike are always out. Over the course of our lives what happens is that our identity becomes all wrapped up in our own in group & keeping score.

Many people in are culture live in this space: they can only think in terms of black/white, in/out, w/us/against us; we’re right, you’re wrong & they are highly invested in: uniformity & control & conformity. This is what the Pharisees had done w/the law. They became so focused on doing things exactly right, perfect observance, strict standards… that there was no room for grace. And they became extremely concerned with how they looked from the outside. And so Jesus says “this isn’t righteousness, this is immaturity!”

You see at these low levels of human development, the only way to build community is to force community thru social pressure… to insist upon absolute loyalty to the group & enforce that loyalty through sometimes horrible social pressure, shaming, name calling… it’s immature.

Think of how much of our society exists on this level. I mean, is this a description of cable news or what? … or our politics in this country? Both are replete with people highly invested in labels and “isms,” highly concerned about who’s with or against us, highly committed to we’re totally right & you’re wrong. Enforcing conformity/community through intense social pressure: shaming, blaming, name calling, intimidation, even violence. Insisting upon absolute loyalty to the group. All the while showing no capacity for self-criticism – completely defiant about their own ignorance & faults.

I call it “plank-eye syndrome” … so worried about speck in the neighbor’s eye, missing the ginormous plank in their own eye. And for the Pharisees, the pressure to conform is SO intense, but, the bar is set so high that even they can’t ever get there. So what do they do? They fake it… enter the false self/ego. They end up having to disguise & hide their own faults. This is most of our society; & so this is the way the church has gone, too.

Many people in our society live in the opposite place – they don’t want to draw any lines because they want to live however they want. So many people in our society are ruled by their appetites. Conventional wisdom in our culture says: You’re free to live however you want as long as it doesn’t interfere w/someone else’s ability to live however they want. It’s society’s permission to let the false-self rule our lives … to just let the ego run free. And it’s not the Jesus way. The Jesus way says: everything you do shapes you – there are ways you are free to live that will destroy you.

And here’s the thing… & this is why I love the church so much. There’s no way out of those stories other than the Jesus way. There’s no other community besides the church that has any hope of forming people in a completely different story: church. When Jesus says “take up cross & follow me,” part of what he’s saying is the false-self, the egocentric you, has to die… you have to stop pretending so the real you can be born again. You have to stop indulging yourself so you can become human. And until this happens with us we’ll never be salt & light. Our righteousness has to go way deeper than the Pharisees…

So Jesus’s whole project is NOT to get rid of the law, but to allow the law to do what it’s supposed to do: to help us transform from the inside out. And so Jesus ends up balancing these two extremes of: Inclusivity on one hand and exclusivity on the other. This is a delicate needle to thread in his teaching… so stay w/me. This is so important for our lives because we can’t grow into a mature Christian without learning the deep wisdom of Jesus here. (btw: I’m leaning heavily into Richard Rohr, Thomas Merton, Dallas Willard now)

Exclusivity at its extreme is dangerous: Here’s the part where I bother everyone who is conservative… which includes me. Jesus is subverting the entire Pharisaic approach to the law, & all the endless arguments about what you can do & can’t do …their demands for loyalty… their social pressures…their emotional & psychological abuse… their egos all tied up in knots… The entire Pharisee project had become an exercise in overemphasizing of group boundaries… about exclusivity.

Exclusivity at its extremes will lead to isolation, rigid dogmas, endless arguments over who’s in, who’s out, and who says… and it will eventually become a roadblock keeping people from experiencing the love of God & God’s redemption… that’s exclusivity. When Jesus sensed this was happening he’d oppose it. (your righteousness has to be better than the Pharisees).

Inclusivity at its extreme is just as dangerous: Here’s the part where I bother everyone who is more on the liberal side… so if that’s you, get ready to live. The liberators want to throw open the doors & let everyone come in… which sounds great. But when all of the boundaries are thrown out & we make no demands upon each other’s lives, this will lead to confusion & the betrayal of central & essential truth, abandonment, and nearly always, the disintegration of community… everything collapses into nothingness. This is where the post-modern critique of Modernity & our modern society does its best work. To believe in everything is to believe in nothing… to believe in nothing leads to self-indulgence or despair.

Inclusivity at its extremes will lead to despair at all the nothingness. People feel abandoned in the universe … and everything collapses into the appetites – might as well just eat drink & be merry, tomorrow we shall die. Whenever Jesus sensed this he would oppose it. (Do not think I’ve come to abolish the law… this isn’t a free-for-all).

What we see Jesus doing all throughout his ministry is attempting to hold these two things – inclusivity & exclusivity – together. We see Jesus do this in the story of the woman caught in adultery. He protects her from the exclusivists, “no man condemns you” – that’s an inclusive move. Then he challenges her to obey, “go & sin no more,” – that’s an exclusive move… he’s constantly balancing the two. At some points talking about the dangers of exclusivity & how it hurts the weak & vulnerable & those who live on the margins of the culture. At other points talking about the dangers of unchecked inclusivity… you can’t live anyway you want to & expect to experience peace with God.

The Jesus way is not a buffet where you can pick & choose the parts you like & forget the parts you don’t. His gospel is exclusive in the sense that you can’t make Jesus just say whatever you want him to say. But the way HE does it, (this is KEY), we are only excluded if we exclude ourselves… His way is saturated with love. And this is really the central tenet of his teaching. Sometimes the exclusive move is the only move to make & still love somebody. Sometimes the inclusive move is the only move you can make in love.

Think about the parent of a child: When you are parenting a child and you don’t let them get away with anything – it’s all rules & no grace. The child will experience that as brutality, not love. When you let them get away with everything – no boundaries, no rules, no consequences… all grace & no structure. The child will experience that as abandonment, not love.

Neither of those children will see their parent as a loving parent. They will either experience brutality or abandonment, but they won’t experience love. Another way to say it is: Exclusivity with out love feels like brutality. Inclusivity without love feels like abandonment… or sentimentality.

So when JS says: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes & Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” he’s saying you can’t play games with exclusivity. That descends into brutality – lack of love & compassion, harshness, always hypocrisy, a life ruled by self-justification. And when he says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill…” He’s saying you can’t play games with inclusivity. That descends into sentimentality – self-indulgence, gluttony, egocentrism, and a life ruled by the appetites.

Here’s why this matters: because most churches make the mistake of sliding toward one extreme or the other. They end up being exclusive hypocrites on one hand, or else inclusive enablers on the other – and neither of them are good news to the world. They don’t flavor the world w/the salt of the gospel. And they don’t end up shining the light into the darkness… just playing around in the dark, and they don’t end up being salt & light,

If you completely give over to either of the two extremes, you lose all of the energy of the gospel. When the church makes the extreme exclusivity move, the Pharisee move the world sees us as brutal and harsh… When the church makes the extreme inclusivity move, the world sees us as sentimental & foolish… So Jesus says: “You are going to have to do better than the Pharisees w/their extreme exclusivity… but this isn’t a free-for-all; I didn’t come to abolish the law, need to take your faith seriously.” Only then will you be salt and light

So how do we do this? How can we, as a church, become Salt & Light? Well… I think sometimes the salt & light move is a move of radical inclusivity. We say anybody can worship with us. Don’t clean up to come to Jesus, just come as you are. This is how you become a ragamuffin church. But, sometimes the only way to love someone is to just forgive all of their brokenness, throw your arms around them & say come home. Sometimes the salt & light move is a move of exclusivity. We say the hard things to each other: “You gossip too much,” or “You never even open your Bible,” or “You never serve anyone but yourself.” This is how you chase the kingdom, how we encourage each other on along the road. Sometimes the only way to love someone is to call them out on the ways in which they are living selfishly or helping them see those persistent issues that they are tripping over time & again.

Both of those are salt & light moves – in once case an act of inclusivity, in another case an act of exclusivity. And it’s really hard to know which approach to take. Because we have to be constantly aware of our own motivation. Am I calling you out because I need to be right? Am I letting you off the hook because I have become self-indulgent?

If we make the exclusive move out of our own need to be right, or out of scarcity, anxiety, we’ll become a roadblock for the people who need JS most.

If we make the inclusive move out of gluttony, self-indulgence, the need to have all your needs met, we’ll become a roadblock for the people who need JS most.

As salt, the church is meant to have a distinct taste: unmistakable. Being salt is exclusive in that Salt is not sugar – it is a particular way. It’s inclusive: only thing that can keep you out of Kingdom is you.

As light; the church is a visible source of light to the world. Being light is exclusive in that it drives away the dark. Darkness is powerless against the light (reverse isn’t true). Darkness can’t overcome light, however one thing can… we can cover up the light – hide it under a bowl. Being light is inclusive in that this light just shines on everyone – no preconditions – “Come ye sinners, right? … poor & needy, weak & wounded, sick & sore.” Light just shines, it doesn’t care on whom it shines.

Closing Prayer – reading of same passage from the Message version:

“13 “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage. 14-16 “Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.

17-18 “Don’t suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures—either God’s Law or the Prophets. I’m not here to demolish but to complete. I am going to put it all together, pull it all together in a vast panorama. God’s Law is more real and lasting than the stars in the sky and the ground at your feet. Long after stars burn out and earth wears out, God’s Law will be alive and working.
19-20 “Trivialize even the smallest item in God’s Law and you will only have trivialized yourself. But take it seriously, show the way for others, and you will find honor in the kingdom. Unless you do far better than the Pharisees in the matters of right living, you won’t know the first thing about entering the kingdom.”

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