[Jesus said:]“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. (NIV)
Salt and light… two things that are necessary for life. They are not the only things necessary, of course, but life cannot go on without adequate levels of either. Salt is a necessary part of human metabolism. We have to have a certain level for the body to function correctly. Too much and one thing goes wrong. Too little and it is something else. As for light, the plant life that sustains all living could not exist without sunlight. Not only that, sunlight is our main source of natural Vitamin D. A deficit of Vitamin D is bad for bone strength. An extreme lack of Vitamin D will disrupt the function of the nervous, muscular and immune systems.
How much of that, however, did the ancients know? They would surely have noticed that there are no plants living inside of caves where no light can shine. That would tell them something. Artificial light wasn’t an option in those days, beyond an open flame lamp or torch. Night was for stopping work for resting, story telling, meal time and sleeping. They would certainly have extrapolated that eternal darkness would be death, just as the temporary darkness of night led to the ‘mini-death’ of sleep. Would they have been able to know how a person kept without access to light would be affected? For people who did their cooking, baking, food growing, animal tending and most any other thing outdoors, could any of them suffer from a lack of Vitamin D? I doubt it.
They would have been able to taste the saltiness of sweat or blood, but did they know salt was necessary for life? It is hard to say. They would have known that salt was a natural preservative and a natural antibacterial agent. That was common knowledge the world over thousands of years ago. They would have known salt in bread and other foods make them taste better. Certainly the message there is that life is better with ‘salt of the earth’ people like food tastes better with salt, but necessary for health? I do not know.
As a phrase describing someone, ‘salt of the earth’ is a pretty high compliment. They are solid citizens, someone to look up to, sensible and wise. They would make a good and trustworthy neighbor. At least that is how it is understood in our day as a saying in English. Is that how it was understood in Jesus’ day? On the other hand, if a person is described as ‘salty’ or using ‘salty’ language, you will understand you probably won’t want your small children to be around them or they will hear things better left until they are older. The connotation there is not so positive.
So what is Jesus getting at with this passage?
First, remember who was Jesus talking to. Just before this, he was talking to the disciples (and maybe the crowd by extension) from his seat on the side of a mountain. It is the same audience as he just told “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” (Matthew 5:11, NIV) People that can live withstanding all that kind of persecution and still remember they are blessed have a particular inner strength. No matter what the oppressors do, the blessed will not be broken. Just as light shines far beyond the flame that makes it, these blessed ones will have an impact far beyond where they will ever be. So these resilient, powerful people are salt of the earth and light of the world.
Keeping the faith and trusting that you are blessed no matter what someone does to you or what happens makes you strong in the long run; a force to be reckoned with. Your flavor will not be lost. Your light will not be put out. This is a message of hope in a world where becoming hopeless is a serious temptation. Matthew’s community was likely facing persecution. The Roman occupation forces were brutal. The factions within the Jewish rivalries were brutal too. Matthew had to prepare his people to be resilient and reliable in the face of all that would challenge them.
So my friends, take note… stay strong. Remember you are blessed in the midst of the worst that can happen. Blessed isn’t about having it easy or having good luck or material wealth. Blessed is about being loved, valued, honored. You can get through anything when you know you are loved, valued and honored. Through you, the world will be a better place… tastier and brighter. Thank you for hanging in there.
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.