Gospel: Matthew 5:13-20
[Jesus said:] 13“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In 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. 17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For 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. 19Therefore, 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. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Grace to you and peace from God, our Father, and our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The beginning of our first reading this morning has the prophet Isaiah declaring the word of the Lord, “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins” (Isaiah 58:1). That reading goes on to list the complaints of the people who believe they are following all the rules God has placed before them without receiving the benefits they expect from God in return. The importance of this will (I hope) become clear a bit later.
Today’s gospel reading comes near the beginning of Jesus’ teachings to which we often refer as the “Sermon on the Mount.” These teachings begin with the Beatitudes, which we heard last week, and continue with what we heard read this morning. It’s possible that these teachings did not all occur in one sitting, and that they were gathered together for the purpose of the writing, but they flow well together. If you want to read the entire section, it’s chapters five, six, and seven of Matthew’s Gospel.
Today’s section starts with Jesus telling us that we are the salt of the earth, and the light of the world, a city set upon a hill which cannot be hidden. Then he uplifts the importance of the law, and finishes today’s section with the statement that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Yikes!
Let’s consider first the salt, and how Jesus speaks of salt being trampled under foot when it is no longer serving its purpose in enhancing the flavor of the foods that people eat. In that place and time they were likely unaware of just how much good can be had by putting salt under foot to mitigate slippery surfaces coated by ice. Of course that is beside the point. I’m sure Jesus would have named that purpose as well if it would have made any sense to those listening! His point is that salt should be salty! It should enhance the flavors of foods; it should keep foods from spoiling, from becoming dangerous to consume; maybe here he would include that it should be used when necessary as a kind of fertilizer or to melt the ice that makes traveling dangerous. It is precisely when it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do that its worth is questioned.
When it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, its worth is questioned.
Now consider the words about light. Jesus says that we are the light of the world, and tells us to let our light shine, not in order to be praised as wonderful people or even as wonderful Christians, but so that people will be able to see past us to the God who inspires us.
I remember as a child having the impression from church that we dare not be caught doing anything that might be considered by others to be a “good work,” because “we” didn’t believe that good works could get us into heaven, and we didn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea… Any good works we did were supposed to be in secret, so that they would not garner any praise from the world, because such praise might interfere with our heavenly reward. It’s only as an adult that I realize the exponential absurdity of all that.
Jesus is saying here that we are supposed to do good things in ways that allow people to see past those good deeds to the God who inspires them. Not only that, he tells us that people are watching us.
This frightens some people. Just look at all the warnings about “Big Brother,” coined in George Orwell’s dystopian novel titled, “Nineteen Eight-Four,” and published in 1949. The book described a totalitarian state in which people were under constant surveillance by telescreens and controlled by the state ruler. Today, the term is used as a warning against governmental abuses of power.
Jesus, though, is saying something different. He’s saying that people will watch those whom they see either as leaders or as people representing something beyond themselves. People will also expect more of people who represent something beyond themselves. We expect people holding public office to behave better than those who don’t. We expect church leaders to behave better than those unassociated with the church. We expect teachers, coaches, and business leaders to behave better than those they are supposed to inspire.
We’ve often found ourselves disappointed with these expectations, sometimes even in criminal ways. More benignly, in 1993, Charles Barkley made headlines when he said, “I’m not a role model. Just because I can dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.” He had a point, but he also missed the point. His talent meant that people were watching him, and because people were watching him, he had the opportunity to influence people, positively or negatively. People were urging him to try for a more positive influence, and that irked him. He didn’t want that responsibility. (We could also point to the fictional Spiderman, who was taught by his uncle that with great power comes great responsibility…)
Because you have heard the call of Jesus, because you claim faith in God, there are people, even anonymous people, who will watch you in order to try to figure out what it means to be such a person. Your position as a person of Christ puts you on peoples’ radar, and they will look to you to see what it means to be a person of God. That’s what Jesus means when he says that a city on a hill cannot be hid. Someone is always watching. Often, it’s our children.
This watching brings us to Jesus’ words about the law… Wow. We—and all people of influence—are teaching our children and everyone else around us just by what we do, and how we behave, and Jesus tells us just how dangerous that can be. He ends this section by saying that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, we will never enter into the kingdom of heaven.
The Scribes and the Pharisees ordered their entire lives around being righteous, on following the rules they saw delineated in the Torah, and Jesus expects us to be more righteous than that? WHAT? How can we be more righteous than those who ordered their lives around following all the rules?
Jesus tells us here that when we try to be righteous in ourselves, we miss the point. Being righteous is not about following the rules, he says, it’s about justice.
Did you know that the very same word in Greek is translated either as righteousness or justice? Way back in the time of Isaiah, the people were going through the motions by following the rules like those for fasting, but they missed the point, and Isaiah pointed instead towards loosing the bonds of injustice, letting the oppressed go free, and to breaking yokes of slavery. Isaiah brought up sharing bread with the hungry, housing the homeless; providing clothing for the naked, and taking care of our own as well. Then, he said, the light would break forth!
What Jesus said in this teaching was not new. Isaiah had said the same, but we continue to mislead ourselves—and our children.
Righteousness is not about following the rules, but it’s not about breaking them, either. Righteousness is about caring for one another, and not only our closest family and friends. It is, therefore, NOT so difficult to be more righteous than the scribes and the Pharisees. They could not see beyond their own self-satisfaction at their attempt to follow all the rules.
Instead, we are to look around, and find ways to proclaim God’s love for all creation, and to live that love. We’ll never earn our way into heaven, but that’s not what we’re called to do. We’re called to share God’s light, to share God’s love. We’ll let Jesus lead us into heaven.
In Jesus’ name. Amen