Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Every time I read this Bible Story, I want to start singing the song from Godspell, which is a musical almost as old as I am. For me, the song is what they call an earworm, and it gets stuck there in my head. I love singing it… but there’s a problem. The problem I realized only recently is that the song puts it backward.
In the song, the line, “You’ve got to stay bright to be the light of the world,” occurs twice. Also in the song, we hear, “You’ve got to stay pretty in the city of God.” When speaking of the salt losing its flavor, it states, “You can’t have that fault and be the salt of the earth.”
It seems perfectly in line with our Gospel reading… until you realize that it’s not, at least, not quite.
Think about it for a minute. What happened to that light when it was under the bushel basket? Did it go out? No. Did it get dimmer? Well, we couldn’t see it as well, but the truth is, that light itself stayed just as bright underneath the basket—it just didn’t make its way out to us. That thing about the city of God? In the gospel reading, that’s really only an illustration of being the light of the world. In fact, that city built on a hill statement is sandwiched right in there between “You are the light of the world” and “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket.” This text doesn’t even call it the city of God. Like a city built on a hill that everyone can see, the lamp placed up on a stand gives light to all in the house.
So now let’s talk about the salt. The song talks about the salt losing its flavor. Our text considers it losing its taste. One version mentions a loss of saltiness, and the one authorized by King James way back in 1611 renders it as salt losing its savor: its goodness. I wondered, as I thought about it, what it meant, because salt is sometimes used for flavor, but sometimes it’s used for something else. Sometimes it’s used for preservation, so that food does not spoil and become inedible. Sometimes, it’s used to melt the ice off our pathways, be they roads or sidewalks or driveways. We use salt to soften hard water, or dissolved in water to soothe injured muscles or festering blisters. What kind of saltiness was Jesus talking about when he told the disciples, “You are the salt of the earth”? This occurred to me while we gathered for text study on Wednesday, when I didn’t have any of my reference books available, so I asked whether anybody knew what word was used for what we translate as taste or saltiness.
Dennis knew. He said it’s μωρανθῇ , the word from which we get moron. That didn’t seem to fit… then he said, “foolish.” How does salt become foolish?
Then something clicked, and I thought, “Ineffective,” but that wasn’t quite right, either. When you’re trying to get something in Greek to make sense in English, this is the kind of thing that happens. So I thought back on the foolishness and wondered, “What is foolish? Foolish is when you refuse to see or to be what you are, when you try to be something you’re not.
Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth.” He doesn’t say, “You could be the salt of the earth if you weren’t so moronic.” He says, “You ARE the salt of the earth.” It is, apparently, possible for salt to be foolish, to refuse to do what it is meant to do—but only if that salt is people like those to whom Jesus was speaking. Salt will always be salt. It will melt ice down to a certain temperature. It will either add a savoriness to foods or make it too salty so it cannot be eaten. People are different.
People will often refuse to do what they ought. The song I mentioned says, “You can’t have that fault and be the salt of the earth.” As I mentioned earlier, I believe they got it backwards.
You ARE the salt of the earth, even when you fail to do what God calls you to do. You ARE the light of the world, even when you try to hide under a basket. And the city on the hill? Well, it’s not always pretty… in fact, sometimes it can be rather ugly, but it cannot be hidden. Because it’s on the hill, people will see whatever it produces.
The United States of America is rather like that city on the hill that everyone is watching right now. Some people believe all the executive orders our president has issued are exactly the right thing. Others are appalled and offended. Even the federal judges are divided and it will likely take some time to sort everything out. It won’t always be pretty in this city on the hill, but that will not remove us from the view of people all over the world. People will see what is pretty and what is ugly, and they will condemn, or praise, or be indifferent.
All of this does not negate what Jesus said to his disciples, and what he says to us. You ARE the salt of the earth. You ARE the light of the world. What does that mean? It means you are called to be what needs to be.
When you hide your light under a bushel basket, all that the people can see is the darkness, and we need the light. When you keep your saltiness, your savoriness, all wrapped around yourself, all that the people of the world will experience is the foolishness of the unsalty!
I can’t dictate exactly how God’s light will shine through you in this world. I won’t command the ways in which you use your saltiness in this world. I will, however, encourage you to let your light shine, and to let your saltiness flavor this community and maybe the whole world. Reach out to the people across the street, and down the block. Let your generosity flow to places where the world seems ugly, so that God’s light will inspire growth. Who knows what might happen through you? After all, you ARE the salt of the earth, and you ARE the light of the world. Jesus says so. Amen