Salt and Light: Culture Wars or Identity in Christ?
The Sermon on the Mount is the set of teachings most readily identified with Jesus Christ. I would say "most popular" but if we actually look at the content of Matthew chapters five, six, and seven, I don't think the message of this sermon is popular at all. It wasn't meant to be.
This was not a message for the crowds. Matthew 5:1 begins, "Seeing the crowds, he went up on a mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him." Jesus could easily draw a crowd but that was never his intention. Jesus wanted to make disciples. The Sermon on the Mount is for those who have committed their lives to following Jesus.
The teaching begins with a section called the "Beatitudes" because they describe a state of blessedness. This blessedness, however, is very different from what the world considers to be blessed. Jesus teaches in the Beatitudes,
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
We are enjoying a state of blessedness when we are persecuted? When others hate and abuse us? When people make false accusations against us? I doubt anyone was thanking God for these "blessings" during Thanksgiving prayers last week and, yet, Jesus said, "Rejoice and be glad."
Immediately following the Beatitudes Jesus says,
You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, 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 who is in heaven.
Salt and light. When conservative Christians in America hear this phrase we tend to think of standing for the Truth, defending our Judeo-Christian heritage, and winning America back for God. We primarily think of being salt and light in terms of the culture war. Is this what Jesus meant?
Jesus's teaching on salt and light is directly related to the Beatitudes which preceded it. If we are living our lives in such a way that they reflect the Beatitudes, then we will be salt and light. If our lives are characterized by the Beatitudes, we can be confident that we are, indeed, disciples of Jesus. Salt and light manifest themselves as an outpouring of who we are.
Salt preserves and seasons. Salt was used to make meat last longer which also made it taste better. You might be thinking, "Correct. We are preserving our Christian values in American society. Traditional Christian values make our culture better." Question: where do we see Jesus "standing up for" Israel's traditional values and morality to the Roman authorities? We don't.
Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God which operates according to an entirely different paradigm than the kingdoms of the world. A life characterized by meekness (Matthew 5:5) and peacemaking (5:9) have a preserving and seasoning effect on the world. A Christian whose life as a disciple of Jesus is demonstrated in ways that reflect the Beatitudes is acting as salt in the world.
What about light? It is correct that Christians reveal what is true when we act as light. The Beatitudes teach us that disciples of Jesus are comforted, receive mercy, and are called children of God. Do we convey these truths when we "stand for the Truth"? Do we invite others to come and experience these merciful blessings of God? We ought to be.
Salt and light are not good metaphors for the culture war. Are our lives characterized by the Beatitudes? If so, then we have good reason to be assured that we are, in fact, Jesus's disciples. If we are living as his disciples, then we will preserve and season and illuminate those around us as salt and light. We may have good reasons for participating in the culture wars (I have written on this previously) but being salt and light is about something much deeper and more profound. Take another look at the Sermon on the Mount and see for yourself.
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