Salt and Light in the Sermon on the Mount

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Biblical Teachings, Sermon on the Mount

  • After the blessings stated in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins to discuss witnessing.
  • Witnessing has some persecution attached to it; such persecution will be rewarded.
  • Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth….”
  • A few comments on the way this is written are in order.
  • Greek writers do not need to use pronouns.
  • It would be like saying in English, “Open the door.”
  • The Greek verb determines the proper pronoun.
  • The language does have pronouns, and when they are used, it is mainly for emphasis.
  • Here, the pronoun is used.
  • Next, there are no rules for word order in a Greek sentence.
  • English generally starts with the subject, is followed by the verb, and ends with the direct object.
  • Greek writers don’t have to do that.
  • They can put the words in any order they choose.
  • Typically, the most important word or phrase is placed at the beginning of the sentence.
  • That’s the one they want the reader to remember as they go along.
  • It’s not uncommon at all for the subject to be the very last word.
  • Well, in this particular case, the pronoun “you” is not only written, but it is also first.
  • So this is like someone pointing a finger and shouting, “YOU, you are the salt of the earth!”
  • Precisely you people who are persecuted and slandered, YOU, “you are the salt of the earth!”
  • So what does it mean to be the salt of the earth?
  • Salt has many purposes in antiquity.
  • Refrigerators don’t exist, so salt is used to preserve food.
  • Salt is also used to flavor food.
  • It is used in temple rituals.
  • It can also be used, in the right way, as a fertilizer.
  • Since salt is essential to life, perhaps Jesus is saying that the disciples are essential to the life of the world.
  • Since it’s a preservative, the disciples are meant to combat spiritual and moral decay.
  • • As a fertilizer, the disciples are to prepare the soil for the gospel.
  • Salt is not salt for itself, but for its uses.
  • The disciples are not existing for themselves, but for others.
  • This is not to compliment them on their character or privileges.
  • Rather it is to illustrate for them that membership in the kingdom is not for their own enjoyment, but for the benefit of others.
  • This becomes doubly significant as one considers the capacity of salt to create thirst.
  • Anyone who has eaten something salty knows the thirst that follows.
  • As the disciples express their qualities of salt, that thirsting must follow; it will be a natural consequence.
  • Jesus also says, “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 underfoot.”
  • There is a sense of responsibility with salt. Moreover, there is a warning: we can lose our saltiness.
  • Disciples can compromise so much with the world that it doesn’t matter anymore. That can happen. Once it happens, the salt is worthless.
  • The word is actually a form of “to become or make foolish.”
  • So the phrase means that to lose one’s saltiness is to become foolish.
  • Then, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.”
  • Light is open, manifest.
  • Light is a very important metaphor in the Bible.
  • Light dispels the darkness.
  • Even the tiniest night light at night lights up an entire room.
  • • Moreover, now the disciples are the light of the world. The word is actually cosmos; it now has cosmic significance.
  • The disciples are, once again, indispensable to life.
  • “A city built on a hill cannot be hid.”
  • Even from far away, a city on a hill can be seen.
  • (This could be a possible reference to the Temple in Jerusalem that is built on a hill.)
  • “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.”
  • The light of the disciples must shine before all.
  • “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.”
  • This is the crowning statement.
  • They exist for the benefit of others.
  • All these verbs are in the present tense, indicating continuous action.
  • Disciples are to let their light shine; let it keep on shining.
  • They are to do—to keep on doing—good works so that people may glorify their Father in heaven.
  • Works are to be transparent.
  • Jesus does not promote his own glory, nor does he give warrant to his followers to seek any for themselves.
  • There is no warning here like there was about losing their saltiness; there is only a promise.
  • Disciples need both warning and encouragement.
  • The salt and light metaphors indicate that the disciples are simply changed individuals. They have the kingdom within and must witness to it.
  • Jesus continues, “Do not think that I have come to destroy the law and the prophets.
  • The “law and the prophets” refers to their scriptures
  • This is what Jesus studies. It is his Bible, his personal library.
  • His statement follows the form of the strongest possible prohibition in Greek. It’s like saying, “It’s totally unthinkable that I have come to destroy the Bible. How could something like that even cross your mind?”
  • But clearly it has crossed someone’s mind, or he wouldn’t need to be discussing it now.
  • Scholars assume that Jesus’ teachings on the law are so out of step with contemporary thought that a firm denial is necessary.
  • Scholars disagree whether this would have been a valid concern at this point in Jesus’ ministry.
  • Many claim that it probably reflects Matthew’s concerns 50 years later.
  • At this point in his ministry, Jesus has done nothing to warrant such concerns.
  • Later on, it will be very different.
  • Palestinian Jews are very sensitive about any and all tampering with the law.
  • The law has been given by God Himself and is therefore, perfect and not subject to reform.
  • Yet, there will be times in Jesus’ ministry when his activities will appear to be in direct opposition to the Jewish understanding of Mosaic law.
  • The scribes and Pharisees will become very hostile, seeing his teachings as being very dangerous to their Jewish way of life. Their opposition will eventually result in his death.
  • The intent of this statement, then, is to anticipate those fears and put them to rest regardless of whether they come before or after the fact.
  • When Jesus says, “I came,” or “I have come,” he is claiming a sense of mission.
  • He has been sent by God.
  • He is not here to destroy the Holy Scriptures, to set them aside, relax, or make them obsolete.
  • He didn’t “come to destroy, but to fulfill them,” to fill up full; to fill up completely, to be obedient with meaning, to bring it to its intended meaning.
  • He is saying the law is valid. True, it has been interpreted to stress the acts; it is externalized, legalistic.
  • But he fills it up with meaning. He stresses the doer. He is saying, “Put it inside, internalize it.” He is saying character is important.
  • It is the letter-spirit argument. The letter isn't enough.
  • Then in 5:18 he says, “For truly I tell you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”
  • He introduces these remarks with great solemnity.
  • As long as there is a heaven and earth, the law will be there.
  • It will be around as long as it’s needed.
  • The metaphor of “jot and tittle” refers to the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet and the tiniest stroke of a pen. It’s an image reaffirming the importance of the law.
  • It is saying that nothing will be removed from it, not even the smallest detail. It is there for our protection, and it is all valid.
  • Jesus adds, “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.”
  • Pharisees are known to distinguish between more or less important commandments.
  • The one who does or teaches others to do will be great in the kingdom of heaven.
  • Observing the law isn’t enough; it must be taught to others.
  • This is all leading up to Jesus’ final statement, in which he states that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
  • That sounds almost impossible. The Pharisees are about as meticulous in conduct as anyone can be.
  • Their days are filled with observing the minutiae of the law.
  • Is he suggesting followers try to out-do the Pharisees in their painstaking adherence to the law? Probably not.
  • Jesus is ushering in a new and higher sense of righteousness.
  • It’s not the quantity of observance, but the quality of it.
  • This is another way of saying that obedience to the law needs to be inner, not outer; living the law is not a show for others, but a reflection of what we already are.
  • Then adherence to the law can be genuinely unlimited as opposed to limited to the letter only; it will be spontaneous not forced.
  • This is what is required in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.
  • Although this has a causal ring to it—do this and you will get this, these words must be remembered in light of the gifts of the beatitudes.
  • These words are addressed to those who have already been given the kingdom—“for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Being in the kingdom and righteousness—following Jesus’ teachings—go together.
  • Implicit in this command is the recognition that strict adherence to the law does not guarantee godliness.
  • But it also recognizes that the scribes and Pharisees are righteous.
  • They are the people most esteemed for their fidelity to the law.
  • The only valid criticism might be that they are too conscientious.
  • In their zeal for the minutest details of law and tradition, they are apt to lose sight of the larger moral purposes which the law as a whole is meant to serve.

Bible Characters