The Sermon on the Mount begins with the Eight Beatitudes. They must be read in the context of the many Beatitudes in the Psalms, some of which Jesus quotes verbatim. The Jewish Bible is equally useful in understanding Mt 5:13-20 today:
You are the salt of the earth
It is hard to overstate the importance of salt in the ancient world. We are warned to “go easy” on the salt. In ancient times, lacking refrigeration, it was a preservative. The manufacture of salt dates to 6000BC and the trade in salt was vital and lucrative. The word salary comes from the salt ration provided to soldiers. Salt was not a convenience, it was a vital need!
When Jesus tells His disciples that they are the salt of the earth He implies they are of great value in spite of their social status. (a paradox like the Beatitudes)
What of salt in the Jewish Scriptures? The Hebrew melach occurs in Leviticus 2:13 You shall not omit from your grain offerings the salt of the covenant with your God; with all your offerings you shall offer salt. This idea of “salt of the covenant” appears again in Numbers 18:19 where God’s promise to Aaron is a covenant of salt forever before the Lord for you and your descendants as well. Later, in 2 Chronicles 13:5 Abijah asks Jeroboam, “Do you not know the Lord God of Israel gave kingship over Israel forever to David and his sons by a covenant of salt?”
The use of salt in the sacrifices reminds us that disciples of Jesus have a sacrificial role to play in the world. We are to preserve the world and to give it flavor, but the Scripture remind us of the role we (in the person of Christ) have in making the perfect sacrifice to God.
There are also references to salt and judgment (Dtn 29:23 & Judges 9:45). The Gospel message we proclaim is always judgment: Life for those who repent and believe, death to those who reject God’s reign.
You are the Light of the World
In Isaiah 42 God says to His Servant (referring to Israel, prophet and Messiah) “I am the Lord and I have called you in righteousness…I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations/gentiles, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” This text is vital to understand the ministry of Jesus, but also the mission of Israel, and by extension, the church. It is about us, as Jesus makes clear.
Isaiah 49 also looks to God’s “servant” and says: It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.
A city set on a hill cannot be hidden
The hill is no doubt Zion and the city is Jerusalem. The references in Isaiah and Psalms provide a substantial back ground to hear Jesus’ words:
Isaiah 2:2-4 “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest mountain and shall be raised above the hills, and the nations shall stream to it”
Psalm 48 says “in the city of our God. His holy mountain….is the joy of all the earth.” (A theme repeated in Psalms 46, 72, 87, 122, 125, 132) The hill is God’s hill, God’s city, God’s dwelling…
And psalm 87 declares that of Zion it shall be said, “this one and that one were born in it…” referring to Rahab and Babylon, Philistia, Tyre, and Ethiopia. The hill of God is meant for all the earth, everyone will be drawn to the hill to be instructed by God.
Jesus reaffirms this vocation to be a voice to the world; too many of us seem to think we can say “that is not my style, I am shy.” Our PURPOSE is to proclaim the Kingdom, to point to Jesus. If we don’t, if we can’t we are useless. We are like a bus driver who might know the directions to everywhere, has great coordination and a complete knowledge bus driving, but says “I do not drive.” Useless. However, less you feel despair because you feel inept at proclamation, Jesus He reminds us that the most powerful proclamation is our deeds. This is in keeping with Matthew’s major concern throughout his Gospel. [This explains the confusing material that Jesus has come not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. This does not sit easily with the Pauline texts about Law.] We know that early Christians, like us today, have had different ways of understanding and expressing the Christian vocation, different ways of articulating who we are and what we are called to be.
Today we hear this one: Jesus says what we do reflects on God. It is a text which has been central to my understanding of church since 1976. For good or ill, it is what shapes my understanding and what drives our mission as a parish.
I believe that our proclamation of the Kingdom and our “success” is merely a finger pointing to God saying “To Him be glory!” It is what true worship is all about: glorifying God in obedient faith and love.
JESUS SAYS to you and me:Let your light shine so that people will see the good works you do and give glory to your Father in heaven.
That is Israel’s vocation.
That is the church’s vocation.
That is our vocation.