A "Salt and Light" Job Description: Reflections on Matthew 5:13-16

Alyce McKenzieLectionary Reflections on Matthew 5:13-16
February 6, 2011

A woman was checking out at the grocery store one morning. The young cashier handed her the receipt and said cheerily, "Have a nice day!" To which the woman replied, "I'm sorry, but I have other plans."

Maybe she did have other plans, or maybe she just didn't appreciate being told what to do by someone she didn't even know.

"Have a nice day" is not the sort of thing Jesus ever said to anyone when leaving them or when they were leaving him. He said things like, "Go and sin no more," or "Rise, take up your bed and walk," and "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . ."

In these verses (Matthew 5:13-16), he is saying, "Go, be salt and light." Of course, lots of people, then and now, respond with, "Sorry, I have other plans."

Who likes to be told who to be and what to do by someone they don't even know?

Not a New Nametag and Job Description
Especially when it seems to come out of the blue. That's how this salt and light nametag seems on first reading. Like suddenly being handed a nametag and a job description without ever having applied for the position.

On first reading, this reminds me of the time I was attending a community-wide benefit banquet. Its purpose was to explore the causes of local poverty, help fund future efforts, and celebrate the contributions of key leaders during the past year. The organizer got up and welcomed us all and announced how happy he was that Rev. Jones, who happened to be sitting across from me, had agreed to be our keynote speaker for the evening. Judging from the shocked look on Rev. Jones' face, this was news to him. Either he'd forgotten he'd been asked, or the organizer had forgotten to ask him. He began scribbling notes on his napkin and, by the time the fudge cake and coffee had been served, he was ready with a credible, even eloquent speech. A little pressure can work wonders.

Jesus is not blindsiding his disciples (5:1) with a new mission and a new identity for which they have had no prior invitation, no time to prepare themselves. The task of bringing flavor to the world was not a new one for Israel. As for light, Israel had long regarded God as the source of light for daily life (Ps. 119: 105) and light itself (Ps. 36:9). Israel's portrait gallery had long contained the picture, centuries old, of the Servant of Yahweh, who was to be a light to the nations through redemptive servanthood (Is. 42:6: 49:6). (See also Rom. 2:19 and Phil. 2:18.) More recently, the rabbis had spoken of the Torah as a mediator of light (Hare, 45).

Jesus' listeners, living in the context of Roman domination, would probably have known that Rome saw itself as a "light to the world." Jesus' message to the disciples is that living by the Beatitudes is a light to the world, not living by an imperial domination system (Reid, 36). The disciples are to take on the mission of the Servant of Yahweh from Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6, to be a light to the nations. The statement that they are to give light to all in the house is probably, for Matthew, a reference to the reformation of Judaism from within (Hill, 116).

Salt and Light
"You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world." This word you is emphatic in both verses. The intent may be to contrast Matthean Christians with their counterparts in the synagogue down the street. There is an implied imperative in both indicative statements. "Be salt. Be light. Be who you already have been called to be and are capable, by the power of God, of being in and for the world."

To be light is to participate in the identity of Christ. While the rabbis saw Torah as mediator of God's light, Christians ascribed this role to Jesus. "I am the light of the world" (Jn. 8:12). Paul affirmed that he glimpsed the "light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Cor. 4:6) (Hare 45). It is a waste of precious oil to light a lamp and then immediately to douse it, quickly putting it under a basket.

When Jesus tells his disciples to "be salt," he is drawing on a number of Old Testament uses for salt. It was used for seasoning, preservation, and purifying (2 Kg. 2:19-22). It was used to ratify covenants (Num. 18:29; 2 Chr. 13:5) and in liturgical functions (Ex. 30:35; Lev. 2:13; Ezek. 43:24; Ezra 6:9). To eat salt with someone signified a bond of friendship and loyalty (Ezra 4:14; Acts 1:4). Salt scattered on a conquered city reinforced its devastation (Jg. 9:45) (Reid, 35).

In rabbinic metaphorical language, salt connoted wisdom (Hill, 115). Today, salt adds flavor to food, cures food, creates traction on icy roads, and can serve as an antiseptic in wounds.

1/31/2011 5:00:00 AM
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    About Alyce McKenzie
    Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.