Matthew 5: 13-20
When it came to this week’s lectionary reading, out of the two metaphors that Jesus uses, salt and light, I was drawn to light and I was reminded of Claude Monet’s work as an impressionist. I know, connect the dots. The Impressionists were a group of painters towards the end of the 19th century who went ‘rogue’ if you will from the classical style of painting. Monet’s work and that of the other impressionists like Cezanne, Degas, Pissarro, Renoir among other painters painted suggestions of object using tonal values to delineate form. Very simply they paint light and dark.
You can see it in Monet’s paintings, Waterlilies, his Gardens, they all rely on light to convey their message. It is said that “the impressionist does not analyze form but only receives the light reflected from that form onto the retina of his eye and seeks to reproduce the effect of that light rather than the form of the object reflecting it.”[i] Light is of utmost importance to the Impressionist’s eye.
Light illuminates. Light shines. Light keeps us from getting lost in vagueness and void. It gives definition to that which is formless. The Impressionists knew that and that’s how they saw the world. Jesus also uses light as a way of discipleship, he knows that light will illuminate the world with his teachings and love.
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Today’s scripture reading is part of the Sermon on the Mount and falls directly after the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew. He’s got a large captive audience and really wants them to understand the nature of discipleship.
What we have to remember is that Jesus’ audience was quite different than Matthew’s audience and certainly different than our setting today. The Gospel of Matthew is not an eye witness account, he was writing for a congregation that was in a time of theological and social tension following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. He was writing years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. There was conflict within the Jewish community on what the future of Judaism would be. And also Matthew believed that they were living right before the apocalypse which adds another layer of urgency to his message. So it was a dark time for them.
Jesus was preaching to Israel and Israel had been called by God to be a light to the nations as it says in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, “I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”(Isaiah 49: 6) Jesus knew his Hebrew Bible scripture and kept true to the call of God upon Israel. Don’t forget he was the fulfillment of God’s law and love.
So Jesus’ sermon had quite a divergent view from the other religious leaders in an already heated political and religious debate over the fate of Israel whose land by now had been occupied by the Roman Empire. The land was no longer in the hands of the Jews but in the hands of the ‘goyim’, the non-Jews. So there were divisions among them on how to address the questions of faith and observance that would come up as a result of the occupation and of course there were questions about their identity. Who are we? What does God want us to do? Who does God want us to be? What are we supposed to do now?
The Pharisees understood Torah in one-way and Jesus understood it in another. That’s why there is always tension between Jesus and the Pharisees in Matthew. The Pharisees were working with an outdated political and cultural model and were striving to maintain the status quo. Jesus saw the law in a different way, he was saying that God is doing a new thing, and that he, Jesus is the fulfillment of the ‘new thing’.
Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount as encouragement for the people to be Israel, just to be themselves, to be true to whom God had called them to be through their covenantal relationship; and to be open to the new ways in which God was calling them. You know God continues to call us into the future for where there are needs in this world that is where God calls us as disciples. And as the world changes so does the nature of our discipleship call changes.
So Jesus uses two metaphors to engage the people in discipleship, salt and light. Both of these elements enhance things around them. Salt brings out distinctive flavors in food, it elicits good taste, for who doesn’t like a little salt on their potato chips or on a cob of corn? But salt does no such thing if it has lost its taste, food will be bland. So we are to be salt, enhancing life for others around us, making life just a bit more palatable for everyone. We are called to bring out the best in the world – that’s what being a disciple of Jesus is all about, following his ways, lifting up and brining out the best in all people.
Same thing with light. As disciples of Jesus and his gospel of compassion, shining the light is our role as a gathered community. We are to be the vessels by which the light of God can shine through. We are the light that Monet endeavored to paint that gives form to something that is unrecognizable, that brings life to something that has ceased living.
We are the harbingers of God’s light, we are the ‘light on the hill’. We are the pin dot of light in a darkened room. We are the ones that shine light into the deepest darkest places whether those places like it or not, or want it. Our light is to expose injustice, discrimination, hatred and violence that lurk in dark crevices. And that’s exactly what the Gospel is about, and how we are supposed to spread it around. And after the exposures comes love.
If we were to hang out with Jesus long enough we find that is exactly what he does, that is exactly who he is preaching to on the side of that mountain. The poor, the oppressed and the imprisoned. He shines light on the woman caught in adultery only to expose the hypocrisy of those in authority around him. He shines a light on the rich urging them to invite the poor to their banquets. His light shines bold and strong beckoning us to do the same as his disciples.
Luke chapter four Jesus says, "THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED. As disciples that is our mandate too. I dare to say we have our work cut out for us.
The question for us is, will we be that light that shines so that others may live freely without hurt or pain or suffering? Or will we cower with fear enough to extinguish that light so that no one will be freed?
In the words of Maryanne Williamson, quoted by Nelson Mandela in his 1994 Inaugural speech, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure…We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in all of us. And when we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Shining our light, illuminating the darkness and giving it form.
And that’s what we are about, all in the name of Jesus Christ.