Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that we, his followers, are salt and light. That’s supposed to be good, right? But if you’ve ever had a bright light shone in your eyes, or been forced to eat a salt sandwich at a youth group camp, you’ll know that salt and light aren’t always good things. And when we try to be salt and light, how often is that the result! We get in peoples faces, and leave a bad taste in their mouth. Is that what Jesus meant when he said that we are the salt of the earth, and the light of the world? What does it mean, exactly, to be salt and light?
Matt 5:13-14 ‘You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.’
Salt and light: the metaphors
This is more complicated than you’d think, as salt had a variety of connotations in the ancient world. For a start, it was used as a preservative, in an age before refrigeration. It was also used to add flavour to food, when meals were pretty bland and spices hard to come by. You see relics of this era even today, when you go and visit your grandparents: they sit down to a perfectly good meal, back up a truck to the dinner table, and smother their plate with a truckload of salt. So salt is the ever-present seasoning that gives life and flavour to the world. It was also used a metaphor for wisdom. And as an additive to manure (which may make sense of the ‘trampling underfoot’ comment later in the same verse.) What I’m saying is, we’re not short of options to choose from here.
But it’s paired with this idea of light, that we’ll look at in a moment. So it’s probably got to do with its role as a flavouring agent. Jesus is saying that his followers are the seasoning of the world. The chilli powder, if you’re in Mexico. The curry, if you’re in India. The coriander if you’re in Thailand. The smokey BBQ sauce, if you’re my eldest son. The point – regardless of the precise meaning of the metaphor – is that we’re to stand out and be noticed!
This is clearer with the light imagery (v14). We’re to be a light that can’t be hidden. A city on a hill in the middle of rural Palestine can’t be missed (whether by a first century traveller or, sadly, Israeli artillery.) A light is there to shine, not be hidden. So, too, we’re to stand out and be noticed by everyone around us. And it’s there to guide the way, whether literally, in the dark, or metaphorically, when we’re searching for truth and meaning in life. We’re to be the light that people notice; the light that guides in the darkness.
Salt and light: the reality
But as much as I love metaphors, they still leave us a bit fuzzy, don’t they? I mean, what does this idea of being salt and light look like when lived out by actual people? To understand this, we need some context: two contexts, in fact. There’s obviously its context in the Sermon on the Mount itself – which we’ll look at in a minute. But there’s also the big picture context. The story of God’s dealing with humanity, stretching right throughout the Old Testament.
Salt and light: Israel’s calling
You see, God’s been working with this idea of ‘salt & light’ long before Jesus turned up. It traces right back to when he looked around at the mess the world had become and said to a hairy nomad called Abram, ‘pack your bags, I’ll start with you’. And he started to bless him, and look after him. He formed a special relationship with him, not just because he wanted to play favourites, but because he wanted the world to sit up and take notice. It’s like a school teacher, at the end of the day, faced with a class of unruly kids, quietly giving an early mark to the one kid who’s sitting there obediently. And the next one. And the next. Until pretty soon the whole class can see the benefits of behaving the way the teacher wants. God started with Abram. But it wasn’t just Abram he had in mind. It was the whole world.Gen 12:1-3 The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
And so the plan begins. Soon, not just with Abram, but with the nation he’d father: Israel. They were God’s special people, chosen to be a living advertisement to the world of what life was like the way God intended it to be, with God on your side. They were chosen so that other people would sit up and take notice. And you know what? Sometimes the plan worked, when Israel did in fact trust in God. There were times when they didn’t try to be like everyone else, chasing after foreign gods or relying on foreign military powers for their security. Sometimes the plan actually worked.
We get a glimpse of how this was supposed to work in the story of Rahab, in Joshua ch 2. Rahab hears of how God is on the side of the Israelites, and so she defects – and she becomes part of God’s people (Josh 6:25). We see this pattern repeated in the story of Naaman, from the nearby nation of Aram, where he hears of Elisha’s reputation as a miracle-worker and travels to see him. He ends up going home healed – and a worshipper of the one true God (2 Kings 5:17). We see it also at the height of Solomon’s power. Rulers from other nations, like the Queen of Sheba, visited Solomon to enquire of his wisdom. They realised that there was something special going on there – that God had done this for Solomon (1 Kings 10:6-10).
But a lot of the time, it must be said, Israel failed at their task. Their light dimmed, and their salt lost its saltiness. They ended up living just like all the nations around, rather than standing out, being noticed. That’s the tragedy that plays out through most of the Old Testament. But still, there was this expectation that one day Israel would live up to her calling. This promise is found several times in the prophet Isaiah, a promise that Israel would be a light to the nations:Isa 42:6 I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the nations…”
They were not only to be a light, but a city on a hill to which the nations can come and find truth:Isa 2:2-3a In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.”
This is what God’s faithful ones were looking forward to. They longed for a time when God would truly reign in Israel, and his people would do their job of being a light to all the nations.
Salt and light: in the sermon on the mount
So when Jesus turns up and says to his hearers, right near the start of the sermon on the mount: you are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world; a city on a hill – do you get what’s going on? God’s people were, at long last, going to do their job. And guess what – you are God’s people!
In our previous post, we looked at the Beatitudes: blessed are the poor, the meek, those who hunger amd thirst for righteousness. Why? Because the kingdom of God is coming! And the kingdom of God is good news for those who are poor, for the kingdom belongs to them! It’s good news for the meek, because they’ll inherit the land. It’s good news for those who want God to come and put things right, because that’s what the kingdom’s all about! It’s about God’s rule among his people: God’s people living the way God intended.
And so, straight after this good news announcement about the kingdom of God, we get this powerful statement about what those in this kingdom are supposed to be. They’re to be salt and light. They’re to stand out, so that this world takes notice. They’re to be an advertisement that says, “this is what it’s like when people live God’s way”. And with it is the implicit message: if you like what you see, come and join us! Just like Rahab. Just like Naaman. Just like that image in Isaiah of the nations streaming to that city on a hill.
So how are God’s people to live, as salt and light? That’s what the rest of the Sermon on the Mount is all about, so we’ll leave much of that for the next few posts. But if the message can be summed up in a sentence, then it’s this: live your life the way God intended. And by so doing, you’ll stand out. People will notice. And when they do, be ready to tell them why, so that they’ll know it’s because of God.
To think about
How do you stand out like a city on a hill?
What are some opportunities you could take to stand out more?
Have you had any Rahab or Naaman moments in your life – where people have noticed you’re different and asked why?
We’ll continue our look at being salt and light tomorrow, as there’s one part of the passage we haven’t yet addressed. What part do you think that might be? What questions come up in your mind?