Matthew 5:13-20 CEB
“You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.
“Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them. I say to you very seriously that as long as heaven and earth exist, neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen will be erased from the Law until everything there becomes a reality. Therefore, whoever ignores one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called the lowest in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever keeps these commands and teaches people to keep them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. I say to you that unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the legal experts and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
When did we become part of the kingdom? When did it happen? Was there a moment when we were on the outside, looking through the doorway, lingering at the threshold? I find myself pondering these questions when Jesus says to me, to all of us, “You are salt” and “You are light,” not “Do you want to be salt?” or “If you believe in me, you will be salt.” Instead, Jesus declares that I am and that you are already salt and light. When did that happen? How did I become salt and light? I wonder if those original disciples and listeners wondered the same thing when Jesus delivered this teaching to them. The difficulty is that if we accept that we are already salt and light, we need to then ask, how will I season and what will I illuminate? In this next part of Jesus telling us about kin-dom living, we find out that we are the taste and light of the kin-dom, so what does that mean for us today?
Salt has made itself an indispensable ingredient in human history. American journalist, Mark Kurlansky, in his book named after the rock we eat explains that “until about 100 years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history.” We have coveted it, fought over it, hoarded and taxed it. This seems silly in this day and age, where we have a glut of salt, so we can often overlook the importance of this mineral, especially in the lives of the Jewish people in Jesus’ time. In ancient times, salt preserved food, very important in the days before refrigeration. It prevented decay and was even sown in fields to help remineralize the soil to help crops grow. To ancient Hebrews and the Jews in Jesus’ time and beyond, “[salt has been] the symbol of the eternal nature of God’s covenant with Israel.” At least twice in the Old Testament, God even references “a covenant of salt” between the divine and the priests and then between the LORD and the house of David to mark an everlasting relationship (Numbers 18:19 and 2 Chronicles 13:5 NRSV). Suddenly, now Jesus is describing you and me as salt, as signs of God’s eternal covenant in the world.
How about being called light? Without it, we could not see. The sun’s own light warms us and helps things grow. Without light, we grow depressed and discouraged. Without light, there would not even be color, for what we see are the reflected pieces of light that matter cannot absorb. To look directly into a source of light like the sun is an excellent way to blind yourself, but without its touch, we would all be in darkness. Jesus could have stopped there, and that would have been more than enough to deal with, but he continues by telling us that we are to be a light that is like a city upon a hill. Something no one can miss! Whether we like it or not, we are Christ’s representatives in this world. When people wish to know what being a disciple, a follower, or a believer looks like, they will look at us.
When I thought of these twin images of salt and light, I found my mind going to something I have seen on the shelves at Nature’s Corner here in Thermopolis, something that did not exist in Jesus' day, a salt lamp. As a pastor, you are always looking for good examples for a sermon, and I thought this would be the perfect illustration, both of these images combined into one. And so, I got one, and it's decorating the front of our church today. What’s funny is that when I bought the lamp I got a little sheet with it that told me all about the health benefits of this lamp, from cleansing the air to improving sleep - a plus for anyone deciding to nap during the pastor’s sermon. Now whether you believe the salt lamp does what the paper says or not, what’s funny is that this sheet of paper echoes Jesus from our scripture this morning. Salt and light do not exist simply for themselves, they are to benefit others.
Take a closer look at what Jesus specifically calls us this morning, saying first that “‘You are the salt of the earth.’” Now, a better translation would be you are the “salt of the ground” or “the salt of dirt.” As I mentioned earlier, salt was used to help remineralize soil to help crops grow. This was a very minerally salt, nowhere near as pure as the reddish salt in the Himalayan variety used in the lamp behind me, so it worked well to restore depleted dirt. However, if no crops were planted, the salt could literally lose its saltiness because those minerals would leach out of the dirt. In other words, the salt was wasted when it did not help other things grow well. Without that purpose, it became plain old grit to be thrown out.
Same with the light, Jesus says “‘people [do not] light a lamp and put it under a basket,’” instead, “‘they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house.’” How many folks here like burning a scented candle from time to time, replacing those regular household smells with scents of lavender or cedar? Now, how do you extinguish your candles? I ask because I sometimes get into trouble for the way that I do it. You see, rather than blowing them out, I prefer chaos, and so I put the lid back onto the jar and let the flame snuff itself out. I have been told this is a good way to burn the lid and really not good behavior. Jesus would probably agree with that assessment because here he hints at the obvious when he describes the foolishness of putting lamps under baskets. After all, how does a candle extinguish itself? The answer is when it burns through its oxygen, and so what happens if you put a flame under a cover? Like salt, if this light does not serve its intent, it uses itself up. It does not and cannot exist for its own sake.
That’s really the way of the kin-dom after all, it does not and cannot exist for its own sake but rather for the sake of others. You can see this in that second part of today’s scripture where Jesus talks about “‘the Law,’” because he isn’t talking about the law like you and I are used to. Law here doesn’t mean statutes or rules, but rather that capital “L” in front of the word means this word is referencing Torah and Torah means more than God’s list of rules. Torah means covenant which means righteousness which means relationship. When Jesus says that not a single stroke or letter will be removed, that’s because Jesus hasn’t come to remove Torah but to fulfill the promise of the Law. That promise is that you and I are now salt and light through Christ. Why? Simple, through Christ, all people are now in a new relationship with God whether we realize it or not.
You find this in all the ways that Jesus later describes the kin-dom in Matthew 13. He describes it as something that grows good crops, even among weeds. He says it will start small but will grow to the size of a tree, big enough to allow everyone to rest in its boughs. It is a treasure hidden in plain sight. It is something that when you discover it, you will sell everything else and be satisfied with it alone. It is something that gathers up everyone. To me, all of these things sound like grace. Why are you salt? Why are you light? Because Christ has made it so because that’s what God does. God takes care of all people because God cannot help but love and favor the children the divine has created. “God is love” declares 1 John. God is love and so blesses all those that divine compassion touches. What is more, you and I are changed by that grace, that love, that blessing to be salt and light, signs and reflections of who God is and what that relationship looks like. We do not need to earn it or become something else to get it. We have it already. What matters is what we do with it.
We are saturated in God’s care, and we become salt and light the moment we taste the grace and see its light, even though it has already seasoned every moment of our lives and illuminated every step along the way. You could say that is what Christians are after all, those who wake up having seen and tasted the grace. Realizing how it has seasoned us and illuminated us. We see our saltiness. We see the glow of light shining through us. We who can taste it are here to season the world, pointing out the flavor of grace. We who can see it, are here to light the world, to ease the way for others. Yes, it leaves us exposed like that city on the hill. You cannot put the light back or take away the salt without becoming ash and grit. So then, if we are already the Himalayan salt lamps of Christ, we might as well be good ones, so let’s claim it and be good signs of Christ’s presence and God’s work in the world today! Amen.
 Mark Kurlansky, Salt: A World History (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 6.
 Ibid., 7.
Pastor Paul Grossman