One of the highest compliments that can be paid (in rural Australia at least) is that someone is a “salt of the earth” sort of person. Usually that means they are genuine, unpretentious, kind, helpful and often refers to an earthy sense of humour. The saying, which is common, comes from our gospel reading this week although many who use the saying would not necessarily realise it comes from the Bible. “You are the salt of the earth...” (Fifth Sunday after Epiphany. Matthew 5:13-20; Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 112:1-9; 1 Corinthians 2:1-12.)
In a part of the world where rising salt levels has caused such damage to our earth it is hard to think of salt as blessing, indeed as essential to a good life. But in Jesus’ time and tradition it was. Salt was essential in the preserving of foods, it was used to purify water, new-borns were rubbed with salt to remedy many ills, it was added to incense and many other uses both sacred and domestic and commercial.
“You are salt of the earth ... you are the light of the world ... a city built on a hill ... a lamp on a lamp stand ... so let your light shine before others.” Scripture affirms that we are unique, precious and of great value - we are loved, worthy and desired. We are called to be all that we are and all that we could be; we are called into the fullness of life and the fullness of our own particular life.
And it is not only because God loves and values us; it is also because God loves others and desires that they be blessed by and through us. We are called to be most fully who we are not simply so that we will enjoy being ourselves but because the world in which we live, our community, needs us to be our truest and best selves. There are those who need our saltiness, there are those in need of the light we bring. And when we let our light shine others will see God in action and may be brought into that light themselves, their divine spark may be kindled by the light and fire in us.
Now many people have heard the exhortation to be salt and to be light primarily as a moral commandment. And the next few verses are probably why “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. ... for I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Maybe that's why so many Christians spend so much time beating themselves up with endless incrimination against themselves or trying to convince themselves and others that they are morally superior to most of the world. There is no evidence that in general Christians are worse or better than anyone else morally. And to try and argue that we are is to entirely miss the point of the good news of Christ in general and the gospel of Matthew in particular.
If you have your Bible near at hand then flick back just a verse or two to where we start the teaching of Jesus. Just the other week we heard the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, and heard how blessed we are when we acknowledge our poverty of spirit and how we are then open to the kingdom of heaven within. And if we were to go ahead a few verses we would hear Jesus say “You have heard it was said to you in ancient times ‘You shall not murder’ ... but I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or a sister you will be liable to judgement ... You have heard that it was said, ‘ You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy’ but I say to you ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only brothers and sister, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
The law that Jesus came to fulfill, the perfection of God, the standard to which we are called, is not that of perfect moral legalism, but of the perfection of love. And in this regard our reading this week I believe tells us that even though we are utterly flawed we are sufficient for each other’s needs. We, when living in the flow of God’s love, are sufficient salt, leaven, salve for one another and they for us. Now the important bit is the bit that says “ when living in the flow of God’s love” because the love we can produce out of our own local heart waxes and wanes and eventually runs dry. The sort of love we can manage on our own is limited and quite frankly limiting. That is, we are rather prone to loving too little, or too late, or too much, or too conditionally; we are rather prone to trying to control by judgement or care; and we are rather prone to giving up on each other and the world.
But when we locate ourselves in the flow, like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail, we are constantly being renewed and drawing upon a love not of our manufacture but of God’s gracious and eternal giving. And then we are able to love beyond our small imaginations and energy levels, we are able to be salty, and to be like leaven in a loaf of bread giving rise to life anew in our friends, neighbours and brothers and sisters near and far.
We would do well to ask our self: what is my particular saltiness or in what way can I add flavour, can I preserve what is good, can I spice up life? In what way am I light or in what ways can I shine, bring understanding, sparkle, and bring a light touch to life? Whose life would be the better for a visit from us, or a phone call, or a card or email? What group would be the stronger for our membership or a donation? Whose future would be better if we wrote down our story or put those lyrics to music or finished that embroidery or donated that piece of machinery? What social or environmental condition would be restored by our commitment and passion? For in using the imagery of saltiness Jesus is calling us to be an active agent in the sacred, in the domestic and in the commercial or wider world in which we live. It is an earthy everyday symbol for living an ordinary full life.
So let us be as salty and as light giving as our true natures enable us. Let us focus on our own capacity to add flavour to the world, to preserve what is good, to shine out with love and joy and hope. Thereby letting our lives reflect the glory of God’s love.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come.