Some of you are old enough to remember the 1986 movie The Mission. It tells the story of an eighteenth-century Jesuit mission in South America which had the misfortune to get in the way of government-supported slave traders. At the end of the movie, after the slave-traders have massacred the Indians and some of the Jesuits, the Jesuit Superior - who was forced by the King of Spain to allow their action - is reading their report. He turns to one of them and says, “Do you have the effrontery to tell me that this slaughter was necessary?” The slave trader replies, “Such is the world, Your Eminence”. “No”, says the Jesuit Superior; “Such have we made it”.
Complaints about the state of the world are made every day. You hear them in newspaper editorials and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and we Christians are as involved in them as anyone else. But in the midst of all this complaining, we often forget that we’ve been called by our Master to do more than gripe about things. As the Jesuit Superior in the movie reminded us, the world is as it is because we human beings have made it that way. Now Jesus is calling us, as his people, to demonstrate by our way of life that there’s a better way.
I said last week that the Sermon on the Mount could be called ‘Lessons in the School of Jesus’. Most people who enroll in the School of Jesus do so because of a sense of need in their own lives; we’re coming to Jesus for help for ourselves. That’s fine as a place to start, but we’ll soon discover that the School of Jesus doesn’t just exist for my benefit as an individual; it exists to change the world. This is very clear in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus starts in the Beatitudes by telling us that we’re welcome in the Kingdom of God whether we’re saints or sinners, beginners or long-time Christians. But he then goes on immediately to remind us that the purpose of the School of Jesus is to produce disciples – people who can make a difference in the world by being like salt and light. That’s what today’s gospel is all about.
“You are the salt of the earth”, says Jesus in verse 13. The word ‘You’ is a plural; he’s addressing his followers as a community, not just as individuals. We, as a community, are to act on the world as salt acts on food. Salt was used in the ancient world not just to add flavour to meat, but also to prevent it from going bad. The purpose of the salt was to influence the meat, not the other way around! So Jesus calls us, his disciples, to have a positive influence on the world around us, and we can’t do that if we’re no different from the world. In God’s plan, our usefulness to the world depends on our being different, living by different values, following a different Master.
In this passage Jesus explicitly warns us about losing our distinctive flavour. Modern table salt actually can’t lose its flavour, but in the ancient world the salt was not pure. It was picked up from the shores of the Dead Sea and many other impurities were picked up with it, impurities that looked just like salt but actually weren’t. The pure salt, of course, was water soluble, so it would not be uncommon for all the saltiness to be washed away and only the impurities be left. So Jesus warns his disciples: there will be a lot of pressure for you to ‘wash away’ your distinctiveness and blend in with the world around you, going along with its priorities and its standards of behaviour. He’s warning us not to give in to that temptation, because if we do, we kiss goodbye to any opportunity to make a real difference for God in the world.
And we are to be visibly different; that’s the point of the second illustration. “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” (vv.14-16).
It’s interesting that in John’s gospel Jesus says, “I am the light of the world”, but here in Matthew he says to us, his followers, “You are the light of the world”. Darkness in the Bible stands for evil, sin, and ignorance, and Jesus is bringing light into the world – truth, goodness, and holiness. He calls his disciples to be like him, so that they also may spread his light wherever they may go. And the question for us as a church community is surely this: does our life together as followers of Jesus remind people of our Master? Do they see his light in us?
When I think of a Christian community shining with the light of Jesus, I think back to the Amish of Nickel Mines in 2006, and their response after a gunman broke into their schoolhouse and shot a number of their children before turning the gun on himself. Instead of anger and calls for revenge, the Amish reached out in love and forgiveness to the family of the gunman. When asked why they were doing this, they pointed out that it was very plain in the teaching of Jesus that people should love their enemies and forgive them rather than taking revenge. “We pray it seven times a day in the Lord’s Prayer”, they said. Many people in the media commented on this, and it seemed to really puzzle some of them. But my own thought was, “At last, instead of people talking about ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ someone is actually living it”. That community was acting like the ‘city built on a hill’ that Jesus talks about here, the city whose light can’t be hidden.
This example also reminds us that often it won’t be in our planned activities and outreach programs that people see the face of Jesus in us. Rather, it will be when stress hits our lives or when tragedy happens. No one in their right minds prays for tragedy, of course, but Christian history contains example after example of God working in times like that to shine his light into the world as his people respond in a Christ-like manner.
But in order for this to happen – in order for us to truly be salt and light and to have a positive influence on the world around us – there needs to be genuine transformation in our own lives, and it can’t just be superficial; it has to go deep. This is what Jesus goes on to address in verses 17-20, where he says,
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. 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”.
As it stands, there is an obvious difficulty with this teaching: it doesn’t line up with the practice of Jesus. Jesus did, in fact, sit rather lightly to some of the commandments. For instance, he allowed his disciples to harvest grain on the Sabbath. He healed the sick on the Sabbath. He declared that it was no longer necessary to keep kosher, because it was not unclean food entering the body that made a person impure, but rather evil actions coming from within. He was not always scrupulous in observing every little detail of the law himself. So how are we to understand this passage?
We need to remember that Jesus was raised in a rhetorical tradition in which exaggeration was an accepted form of teaching. He talks about a camel going through the eye of a needle, and about not trying to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye when there’s a great plank of wood in your own, and being able to use faith to move mountains. Teachers in Jesus’ day often exaggerated in order to make a point, and we need to take this into account when we are interpreting what Jesus had to say.
So what’s he trying to say in this passage? Surely the point is that faith in him involves obedience to God’s commandments. Jesus hung out with sinners, but that didn’t mean he was okay with sin; he wasn’t. He wanted to welcome everyone into the kingdom to begin a journey of transformation, so that together they could become people whose lives were visibly different, in such a way as to have a positive influence for God in the world. In this way, he said, he came to fulfil the law and the prophets; his movement would produce people who were more righteous than the scribes and the Pharisees, not less.
In the rest of Matthew chapter five Jesus gives us some concrete examples of what he’s talking about, and in every case it’s clear that he’s taking the law and internalizing it. He’s not interested in righteousness that’s only skin-deep; he wants the word of God to penetrate into our hearts, so that we are transformed on the inside as well as the outside.
So it’s not enough, he says, to congratulate yourself because you haven’t murdered anyone; murder is caused by anger and resentment, and you must root those things out of your lives as well, and do your best to be reconciled to your adversaries instead of nursing a grudge against them for decades. It’s not enough to congratulate yourself that you’ve never committed adultery while all the time you’re nursing secret sexual fantasies about other people. It’s not enough to congratulate yourself on the fact that in your divorce you followed the law to the letter; God didn’t establish the institution of marriage with divorce in mind, so we’re called to work for reconciliation. It’s not enough to proudly say that when you take an oath in court you never break it. Why do you need to take an oath in the first place? Are you saying to people that you can’t be trusted unless you take an oath? It’s not enough to follow the Old Testament law that limits vengeance to exact equivalence – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Rather, don’t take vengeance at all; turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and love your enemies, just as your heavenly Father sends sunshine and rain on both good and bad alike.
You see what’s going on here? Jesus is focusing not so much on the letter of the Law, but on the positive inner qualities which God is looking for – reconciliation, marital faithfulness, honesty and truth, forgiveness and love for all. This is what Jesus means by ‘fulfilling the Law and the Prophets’, and it helps us make sense of his saying about our righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees.
The scribes and Pharisees were seen as the most religious people of their day, but the problem, according to Jesus, was that often their religion was only skin deep. They would keep the commandment about murder but continue to seethe with anger against others and see nothing wrong in that. They would keep the commandment about adultery but continue to nurse lust for others in their hearts. They would keep their oaths but not be so scrupulous about telling the truth at other times. They would congratulate themselves on having achieved an amicable divorce rather than working for reconciliation in their marriages. They conformed to God’s standards outwardly, but inwardly they were unchanged.
This may look good on the outside, but it’s not what Jesus is after. Not that he’s against outward actions. Sometimes that’s the way it works; we learn to do some outward action, and gradually it transforms us on the inside as well. We learn a new habit, which at first is only an outward thing, but gradually it starts to go deeper. Young couples who are madly in love with each other often hold hands, but it works the other way around as well; older couples who continue to hold hands often find that it enhances the love they feel for each other. The outward action is meant to lead to an inward transformation, and it’s the inner transformation that Jesus is most interested in, because that’s what makes it possible for us to make a difference to the world around us.
Let’s go around this one last time.
Everyone is welcome in the Kingdom of God, because God loves us so much that he accepts us just as we are. However, he loves us too much to leave us there. He knows that living lives of disobedience and sin is ultimately bad for us, and so his purpose is to lead us out of that darkness into the light of a new way of life. And he’s not just doing this for our own sake; he wants the whole world to be transformed by his light. We, the disciples of Jesus, are called to be a community that learns a new way of life from our Master, and then practices living it together. We, as a community, are the salt of the earth, the city set on a hill, the light shining for all to see. The world is meant to be able to see our way of life and take note: this is what God’s Kingdom looks like.