February 5, 2023
Salt and Light
Matthew 5:13-20

During this season of Epiphany, we’re in a sermon series called Walk in the Light, looking at some of Jesus’ most important teachings in chapters four and five of the gospel of Matthew. Two weeks ago, we saw Jesus calling disciples, curing the sick, and caring for hurting people. Last week, Jesus gathered to teach the crowds on a hillside, and blessed them in their vulnerability: the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the pure in heart, the merciful, the persecuted.

Today’s reading picks up just after those beatitudes, and Jesus moves from blessing to identity, from vulnerability to authenticity. Hear now the word of the Lord.

“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. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, 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 in heaven.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For 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. Therefore, 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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Because this text begins where we left off last week, I want to start this sermon where we ended last week in the sermon titled, “Blessing and Vulnerability.” Jesus gathered this crowd, a crowd that was almost universally poor and marginalized in their world, a crowd who had come to follow him because of his healing power, and began to teach them about the realm of God.

His message began by blessing them in their vulnerability, teaching them – and us – that the place of vulnerability is also the place of God’s blessing and presence. When we are empty; when our hearts are broken; when all we have are questions; when the most we offer is a small kindness, God is there. We are blessed. Blessing and Vulnerability.

Today, as we move on to these next lines in Jesus’ sermon, I would like to title this, “Salt, Light, and Authenticity.” Now, you may notice in your bulletin that the title is simply “Salt and Light.” Let me explain.

These few verses and metaphors are some of the most familiar in the gospel of Matthew. You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world…. And I wrestled all week with how to move from the profound vulnerability of the beatitudes to the strong identity statement of salt and light. From “blessed are the poor in spirit” to “you are the light of the world.” And while I was working my way to what I did want to preach, I was sure of the sermons I didn’t want to preach.

I think I can tell you what they are in two titles. The first is, “Salty Christians.” This is the sermon that tells you how salt was a treasured commodity in the ancient world, how salt brings out flavor in food, how it is used to preserve meat, and how it is essential to life. The conclusion is, by analogy, go and be salty! Bring out the flavor of joy and hope in life. Preserve truth and goodness. Become essential to the peace and wholeness of the world. Now, that’s a good sermon with a clear call to action, but it didn’t sit comfortably with me.

As often as I’ve heard that sermon, it’s doesn’t seem in tune with the vulnerability of the beatitudes. It seems to miss the simplicity and humility of the ordinary people gathered around Jesus. Salt brings out flavor – so do we. Salt prevents decay – so do we. Salt is essential to life – so are we. It’s so triumphalist, so self-referential. It’s the grace of vulnerability and blessing that Jesus is teaching. I just didn’t feel comfortable preaching “Salty Christians.”

The other sermon I didn’t want to preach is titled, “Let Your Light Shine.” This is the one that tells you that you are the light of the world, you are light that shines in the darkness, the light that provides warmth and welcome. This is much that is good in this sermon. This is a call to take our light into the world, to expose evil with truth, to drive out fear with love, to create places of safety, welcome, and goodness. This is a call to become, in Jesus’ words, a city set on a hill, and shining example to all. Again, a good sermon, with a clear call, but it just doesn’t sit well with me. Not in this Sermon on the Mount, to the poor and powerless and broken – too much machismo.

In our history, this metaphor of a city on a hill has a checkered past. In 1630, John Winthrop delivered a sermon, before he and his fellow settlers reached New England, declaring that the Massachusetts Bay Colony would shine as an example to the world, like a city set on a hill. Much later, these images of shining light into darkness and being a city set on a hill supported the doctrine of manifest destiny that drove westward expansion and decimated Native American lands and peoples. I could go on, but you understand. It’s too triumphalist, too self-referential. I just don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind when said to those poor and powerless people, “You are the light of the world.”

So, anyway, I knew I didn’t want to preach “Salty Christians,” or “Let Your Light Shine,” but it was Thursday. I needed to get a title to Tabitha, our new communications assistant, and so I gave her “Salt and Light.” That was general enough, I thought, to cover all the bases, and I would hope for inspiration. Inspiration, thankfully, arrived in the thoughtful work of a New Testament professor named Melanie Howard, of Fresno Pacific University, who extracted an unseen wrinkle from the Greek text of Matthew’s gospel.

The first thing that Professor Howard noticed – and this comes through in English too, though we often overlook it – is that what appear to be commands from Jesus are, instead, statements of fact. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Not, you should be, or you need to be, or you can become – but you are.

To this crowd gathered around him, in their brokenness and poverty, in their powerlessness, and smallness, and vulnerability – just where they are, they are salt and light. It’s not something they need to go out and achieve. It’s simply who they are in their vulnerability. That’s when the light bulb went on about “authenticity.”

Blessing and vulnerability. Salt, light, and authenticity.

Jesus is not commanding us to go out and be anything we’re not, to go and become salt for the earth, or build a megawatt bulb to light the world. Jesus is not commanding us to go out as his followers and pose as people who have all the answers, or who are in sole possession of the truth, who are untouched by suffering, or who have a plan to fix it. There is only one Savior, and here the Savior is sending his disciples to be exactly who we are: vulnerable people who are saved by God’s blessing, wounded people who have found a healer, broken people who are being made whole.

Whatever Jesus means by salt and light, it must mean to be who you really are. Because it’s not a command – it’s a statement of fact.

But then, Professor Howard just turned everything upside down with this next insight. If you’re a language nerd, you will love this. There is only one imperative, only one command, in this whole passage, and it comes in verse 16: “Let your light shine.” Now, that sounds clear enough, but the text includes a grammatical form that does not readily translate into English. It is a third-person imperative. In other words, the command is not given to the human audience that Jesus is addressing, but is given to a third object – in this case, the light.

Jesus is not commanding the people how to behave, that is, to shine their light. Jesus is saying something to the light. He’s saying: light, come out of them! The role of the human community under his blessing is simply to not hide – not run away – not avoid vulnerability. The role of the human audience, the human community gathered under his blessing, is simply to be authentic – so that the light that is inside them can obey his command and make its way into the world. (1)

Blessing and vulnerability. Salt, light, and authenticity.

When you are vulnerable you are blessed. When you are authentic, you are the salt of the earth. When you are your true self, you bring joy and hope, you point to truth and goodness, you help sustain life. When you are authentic, you are the light of the world. In a world that is obsessed with image, where perfection is valued and flaws are concealed, where life is filtered for sharing, where all of us are wounded and afraid to be seen, you shine light into darkness when you are you. The light you shine drives out fear and creates warmth and restores wholeness.

Salt, light, and authenticity. That’s the real title of this sermon.

Now, sometimes we think that authenticity means just saying whatever comes into your head. Living life with no filter. Doing whatever feels good, or seems right, or works in the moment. That’s the “authentic me.” That’s not real authenticity. That’s being a loose cannon. Real authenticity has vulnerability and boundaries. There is care and carefulness in real authenticity, because there is exposure and risk. Real authenticity takes work, and it looks much more like what Jesus will continue to talk about in this sermon on the mount, some of which David will go into next week.

Real authenticity is taking it seriously when someone has something against you, and rather than walking away from the relationship, or escalating the division, or dismissing the grievance, you wade into the mess. It means being transparent about the hurt, dealing with the past, seeking forgiveness and reconciliation. That’s authenticity. Salt and light.

Real authenticity is being honest about relationships that are scarred by broken trust, and confronting our disordered desires. Instead of cutting our losses and causing more pain, real authenticity chooses the path of vulnerability, and digs in to the work of healing.

Real authenticity is holding on to the truth, even when it is easier to lie. Real authenticity is working hard to be kind when you have every reason to be mean. Real authenticity is praying for your enemies until you love them as much as your friends. Real authenticity is being generous and not worrying about the credit. Real authenticity is being prayerful but not pompous. Real authenticity is learning to trade anxiety for trust, day by day.

Now, there’s no heroism in any of that. It’s not triumphalist, it’s not self-referential, this is no megawatt city on a hill. It’s just a pinch of salt. A candle in the dark. It’s the honest work of faith. It’s being saved by grace. Martin Luther said, “We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it. The process is not yet finished, but it is going on. This is not the end, but it is the road.” (2)

Blessing and vulnerability. Salt, light, and authenticity. Jesus is calling us to be a people who bless the world by pointing beyond ourselves to the grace of the One who is saving us.

May the God who called light out of darkness summon the light out of your life and mine, in a simple transparency, so that others will give thanks for the goodness of God.


(1) https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-matthew-513-20-5

(2) Warren Wiersbe, Be Authentic


Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.
First Presbyterian Church
Asheville, North Carolina





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