Yesterday we looked at a reading common to Holy Week, funerals, and penance. Tonight’s reading has been covered before on this website for weddings. Let’s read it again:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“You are the salt of the earth.
But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?
It is no longer good for anything
but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
You are the light of the world.
A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.
Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket;
it is set on a lampstand,
where it gives light to all in the house.
Just so, your light must shine before others,
that they may see your good deeds
and glorify your heavenly Father.
Do we take seriously the notion that if we’re not careful, God will simply discard us? Is this a healthy motivation? Can a person be scared into true faith? Or is fear just an institutional billy club, just a threat to get the behavior to conform?
Does the mention of “good deeds” fit the Christian understanding of grace? Is the point, as it seems from one reading of this passage, to get noticed? Then do we really give God the glory?
Maybe it’s helpful to dial back and not read too deeply into this isolated passage. In the time of Jesus, salt didn’t appear in mass-produced boxes in grocery stores and from there, find its way into little glass beakers topped with silvery lids. Salt was used to preserve food in quantity. So during the lean times, people continued to be nourished by fish, beef, and vegetables.
The lamp of ancient times was not something of the genius of Edison. Lamps were dim by today’s standards. Think a candle or two. It was another gesture of survival: it permitted people to eat their final day’s meal on the heels of the longest possible working day, long after the outer dark descended.
In this context, salt and light are not modern conveniences. They are part of life’s defense against death, survival against destruction, existence against the utter darkness. Is Jesus really trying to scare us into obedience? My sense is that he’s appealing to what the ancients already knew. He’s using life and death symbolism people already connected with salt and lamps.
Salt literally staved off winter starvation. Lamps preserved people from predators at the door.
What does this have to do with sin? I don’t think Jesus was directly making the connection of salt, light, and sin. This is an inspiration of those who assembled the Reconciliation Lectionary. This passage, you’ll remember, comes on the heels of the Beatitudes. These two sections lead off the Sermon on the Mount.
Think of those Beatitudes as the New Law from the Lord, brought to the people from the mountain, the place of God. Today’s passage is the first application of the Beatitudes. Do for others. Not because God will throw you out or snuff your light if you don’t. But as a practical consequence of desiring to follow God.
Maybe we are holding off our own destruction, like ancient salt, like old lamps. But sin a very real enemy. The connection I see is that if we’re wondering about what to do, how to live the Christian life, we start by doing something. Preserve something good: a friendship or loving relationship. Shine a little light for someone. Illuminate the way.
After all that, I wouldn’t foresee this passage getting a lot of attention for Reconciliation. Unless a confessor saw a need to encourage the penitent to get off her duff and do something. But if we scratch a little more deeply than the surface, there is richness here in four verses. Sometimes all it takes is a little to hold sin at bay–with God’s help, of course.