(Matthew 5: 13-20)
We began our worship this morning singing one of my favorite hymns and I think it describes the kind of crowd Jesus gathers around him in the Sermon on the Mount. The hymn begins with the image of light, of something new bringing brightness to the darkness. The light is Jesus standing on the mountain, speaking to hundreds, offering them a new message, gathering all who will listen. The hymn says that the young and the old, the lost and the forsaken, the blind and the lame, the rich and the haughty, the proud and the strong are all in one place. All in one place. Listening to Jesus.
Two weeks ago we heard Jesus call this crowd “blessed.” As Steve reminded us, in the Beatitudes Jesus declares to his listeners that, all other evidence in their lives to the contrary, they are blessed. Today, Jesus adds to this declaration. Not only are we blessed, but we are salt, and we are light. We have the potential to be a city on a hill, attracting others to God.
Jesus calls us “the salt of the earth.” As most of you are learning, I’m from South Carolina—and we in the South are known for delicious foods—fried, pickled, sweet, and salty. Having grown up eating at my grandmother’s table, there’s no need for anyone to explain to me how good salt is. Salt is what gives homegrown tomatoes their flavor, and it’s a necessary ingredient in green beans or collard greens. Salt is not something you eat for its own enjoyment, it’s that unique flavor added to a meal to make it taste better. As parents, B.J. and I are forever telling Hannah Ruth to taste her food first because she’s known for shaking salt on her meal before she even takes a bite. Then again, I have to admit that I’m just like her. Salt is this zesty seasoning that makes food better.
However, salt’s importance goes beyond its use in cooking. Our bodies need salt: it’s in our tears, our blood, and in each drop of sweat. Without salt our hearts wouldn’t beat, our blood wouldn’t flow, and our muscles wouldn’t work properly. In fact, salt’s so important that in pregnancy a baby develops in a saltwater solution in its mother’s womb. Salt is more than a seasoning, it’s integral to the proper functioning of our very lives.
But what you may not know is that salt shows up a lot in the Old Testament—around meals, yes—but also in rituals and worship. There’s a historical reason Jesus uses this metaphor. Back then, before Maytag refrigerators, it was the preservative par excellence. Moreover, the term “sharing salt” comes from a letter in the book of Ezra where the author refers to a salt-laden meal where a promise was made. In other words, they had a “salt covenant,” a word used to describe significant meals in each of the first four books of the Bible and also to describe God’s covenant with King David. Throughout the Bible, salt is used as a marker of significant ritual. It marks the occasion as holy, as sacred, and as blessed by God. So when Jesus says that we are “the salt of the earth” he’s reminding his Jewish audience of this special salt of the covenant, this sacred marking of God’s blessing. Salt conveys something holy, something sacred in relationship with God.
But let’s go further… Jesus also calls us “the light of the world.” Light has hundreds of symbolic uses in scripture, many more than salt. And like salt, light is not something we use by itself—it has a purpose. Light is used so that we can see something else—it sheds brightness in a room, on another object, on another person, etc. Just like we don’t eat salt by itself, we don’t use light by itself. Growing up, my dad was forever telling me to turn the lights off when I left a room. Light’s function is to illuminate the world around you; there’s no need to keep the lights on if no one is there to benefit from it. Salt and light are similar in that both have a purpose beyond themselves—they add significance to something else by their presence.
So it seems that, in Jesus’ very first sermon in Matthew, he names us salt and light not just because of how important they are but more because of how they add value to something else. It’s a reminder of how beautiful we are each made, and it’s a call to enhance God’s world around us. Moreover, Jesus’ phrasing here makes a difference, because these two statements are addressed to a group of people. So a better translation of the Greek would have to come from the other NRSV—the New Revised Southern Version of the Bible—“Y’all are the salt of the earth…y’all are the light of the world.” In this sermon, Jesus’ message is for the crowds; together as a group he names them blessed, and he calls them salt and light.
So far in his sermon, Jesus has begun a pattern of name-calling. In the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us multiple positive nicknames. Jesus, the one through whom we were all created, tells us who we are. He is affirming, encouraging, reminding us that we are God’s children. Calling us blessed reminds us of God’s love for each of us. Calling us salt reminds us of our holy relationship with God. And naming us light reveals the brightness we are called to bring to God’s world. Our Lord is not a Lord who stands at the top of the mountain to put us down but instead to remind us who we are: blessed, sacred, and luminous. Jesus is encouraging us to live into the names we’ve been given.
Furthermore, these new names aren’t earned or contingent on something. Jesus doesn’t say, “You’re the salt of the earth only if you do this,” or “you’re the light of the world only if you act this way.” He doesn’t speak in the future tense, saying “soon you will be salt and light.” “Jesus isn’t saying, ‘You should be the salt of the earth and light of the world.’ Or, “You have to be,…’ let alone ‘You better be,….’ Rather, he is saying, you are. As in already are. Jesus declares, “Y’all are the salt of the earth.” “Y’all are the light of the world.” Even if you don’t know it. Even if you once knew it and forgot it. Even if you have a hard time believing it.”
The parents in the room know that one of the humbling aspects of parenting is choosing a name for your child. We have the privilege of giving our children their primary identity. Then, added to that challenge is monitoring the language we use with our children as they grow. Rather than criticize or critique, our goal is to remind our children just how loved and gifted they truly are. It’s challenging but necessary; our words matter and positive affirmations help our children live into their God-given gifts. They excel, they try harder, they act with confidence when we use encouraging rather than discouraging words. Research shows that for every negative message children hear about themselves, they need to hear ten positive ones to restore their sense of self-esteem. As Julia Roberts says in the movie Pretty Woman “the bad stuff if easier to believe.”
Along those same lines, I read an article this week that revealed a dramatic increase in bullying language among school children since 2016. Children have taken on the language of adults in our politically divisive country, and they are hurting each other with words that we adults have allowed to become normal. Insults are becoming the norm as are racial slurs and bigoted behavior…among our children. This new normal is a far cry from the salt and light Jesus calls his followers.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus renames us, reminding us who we are and the God who made us. But we also hear him say, “salt can lose its taste,” and “do not hide the light you’ve been given.” Jesus opens this sermon as a loving parent—reminding us who we are as children of God. But as Jesus continues for the next two chapters, we see the great challenge that it is to be salt and light. Because Jesus names us what we are but also reminds us whom we follow. As salt and light we have a commission to reflect the holy, the sacred, and the brilliant truth of the God we follow.
My friends, we need look no further than our own prayer list or the news reports to know that we live in a world that desperately needs salt and light. We are what Jesus says we are: we are blessed, sacred, and loved. But just like salt and light, we’ve been called to serve God and our neighbor. Salt has no purpose sitting inside a salt shaker, and light has no purpose under a bushel basket. Therefore, we are sent out as “salt of the earth” and as “light to the world.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Lev 2:13 footnote in Harper Collins Bible.
 Genesis 31:54, Exodus 24:9-11, Leviticus 2:13, Numbers 18:19. Footnotes in the Harper Collins Bible in Numbers 18:19 and referenced in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. VIII on Matthew 5:13.
 2 Chronicles 13:5.
 David Lose, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/01/epiphany-5-a-promises-not-commands/
 Found in various places, but this blogger references it here: http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=451.
Featured image from http://father.mulcahy.net/2019/05/28/school-graduation-salt-and-light/