As we consider what safe-for-everyone interpretations and practices might look like, our reading this week is from the gospel of Matthew and continues the passage from last week.
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:13-20)
This week’s reading is this gospel’s collection of sayings and teachings that reflects the concerns and experiences of many Galilean members of the Jewish Jesus community at the time of this gospel’s writing.
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To understand the phrase “if the salt loses its saltiness,” understand how salt was harvested in the region at that time. When harvested, salt was mixed with impurities or other whitish rocks. These rocks were then ground up into pebbles and placed in a seasoning bag that could be stirred into pots as they were cooking. Once all the salt dissolved, one was left with pebbles that would not dissolve and that weren’t salt. This “gravel” was worth nothing but to be thrown out. When this passage was written, the Christian community must have been experiencing a waning that would have helped them resonate with this metaphor. Their salt was losing its potency.
The language of a light on a stand and a city on a hill is interesting. I side with those who date Matthew’s gospel to after Rome’s violent destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. The intended audience for this gospel, Jewish Jesus followers in a Hellenized region, would have had both Jewish and Christian concerns, anxieties, and struggles as they pieced together their purpose in life now that Jerusalem and the temple were no more. The temple state was gone.
So it’s interesting to me that Matthew’s author applies language that would have been associated with the old Jerusalem—“a city on a hill”—to Jesus followers. For the author, these Jewish followers of Jesus were to carry on the hopes and promises that had once centered Jerusalem and the temple there.
We’ll consider those passages from the Hebrew prophets and why we need to be very careful with this, next.
(Read Part 2)