Thought for the day
We can easily see how Jesus should be the light of the world. Even though the words are familiar, we are perhaps unaccustomed to reflecting on ourselves as the light of the world and salt of the earth. This is an act of profound trust in us by God. Jesus has faith in us to be bearers of his Good News in our time. How are we to be that? Not first by our words or even by our deeds. We are the light and salt on account of who we are as disciples. As the Gospel text puts it, a city built on a hilltop cannot be hidden. We cannot help being seen as his disciples, for that is who we are.
Jesus, we believe that you are the light of the world and that you call us to bear your light to the world. Help us to be authentic disciples of yours, not drawing attention to ourselves, but to you, the source of our light and life.
Matthew 5:13 ‘You are salt to the world. And if salt becomes tasteless, how is its saltness to be restored? It is good for nothing but to be thrown away and trodden underfoot.
Matthew 5:14 ‘You are light for all the world. A town that stands on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 When a lamp is lit, it is not put under the meal-tub, but on the lampstand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 Like the lamp, you must shed light among your fellows, so that, when they see the good you do, they may give praise to your Father in heaven.
These brief sayings come after the Beatitudes (5:1-12) and before the Antitheses (5:17-48, “you have heard it said”… “but I say to you”). The passage constitutes a considerable challenge to the church at any point in our history: discipleship without witness is nonsense (“loses its taste”—moranthe—means literally to become foolish, moronic). How can I, how can we become once more light for the world?
Kind of writing
The Sermon as such is technically an epitome, that is, a synthesis of a teacher’s sayings, put together by a disciple. Matthew offers at the start a three-fold portrait of the community members: the Beatitudes (5:3-12), the disciples as salt (5:13) and as light (5:14-16). The first metaphor of salt leads to a warning and the second metaphor of light leads to an admonition.
As regards our verses, there are similar verses in Mark and Luke which are worth reading for comparison: 5:13 = Luke 14:34-35 and Mark 9:49-50; 5:14-16 = Luke 8:16; 11:33; Mark 4:21. We are dealing here with the “triple tradition”, that is, material found across all three synoptic Gospels. Nevertheless, Matthew incorporates adjustments, marked in italics here:
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. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 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.
In other words, Matthew makes considerable adjustments to the underlying tradition. The evangelist is keen on earth/world (43-19-25); light occurs in a few significant places (Matt 4:16; 5:14, 16; 6:23; 10:27; 17:2). Good works may be found also in Matt 26:10; Mark 14:6. “Father in heaven” is typical of Matthew (13-1-0).
Old Testament background
The use of salt and its place in the religion of the time can help us to read the passage.
Sacrifice: You shall not omit from your grain offerings the salt of the covenant with your God; with all your offerings you shall offer salt. (Leviticus 2:13; cf. Ezekiel 43:24)
Loyalty and covenant faithfulness: All the holy offerings that the Israelites present to the Lord I have given to you, together with your sons and daughters, as a perpetual due; it is a covenant of salt forever before the Lord for you and your descendants as well. (Numbers 18:19)
Purification: Now the people of the city said to Elisha, “The location of this city is good, as my lord sees; but the water is bad, and the land is unfruitful.” He said, “Bring me a new bowl, and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him. Then he went to the spring of water and threw the salt into it, and said, “Thus says the Lord, I have made this water wholesome; from now on neither death nor miscarriage shall come from it.” So the water has been wholesome to this day, according to the word that Elisha spoke. (2Kings 2:19–22)
It is listed among the basic necessities of life: The basic necessities of human life are water and fire and iron and salt and wheat flour and milk and honey, the blood of the grape and oil and clothing. (Sirach 39:26)
A city built on a hilltop: In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2:2–3; cf. Deut 26:18-19; Ezek 5:5).
Israel as light to the nations: And now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honoured in the sight of the Lord, and my God has become my strength— he says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to 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.” (Isaiah 49:5–6)
New Testament foreground
What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. (Matthew 10:27)
I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 8:11–12)
Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (Matthew 22:13; cf. 25:30)
But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. (1 Thess 5:4–8)
In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor 4:4–6)
Verse 13 In Greek, the word “you” is emphatic at the start. The move to the second person (you) has been facilitated by the change in the last Beatitude to “blessed are you” and, in general, by the address to the disciples in vv. 11-12. The verse is both realistic and threatening. In reality, it is possible for disciples to lose their sense of mission; in that case, having become useless (“moronic”), they will be thrown out (see the citations above). Again, the previous two verses give us the probably setting for Matthew. Positively, disciples are bear in our world God’s covenant loyalty and desire to hold or preserve. They are also to purify the world.
Verse 14 A striking image which tends to clash with passages in the Fourth Gospel: Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12) “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (John 9:5). However, like Jesus in Mt 4:12-17, disciples are to be light to the world. This extraordinary “status” of the believer lies behind the last sentences of this Gospel (28:19-20). The clash with the Roman Empire is also present because Cicero called Rome “light to the whole world.”
Verse 15 Christians have received light in order to give light, or better, to be light. The background is the single-room house typical of the period, in which a single terra cotta lamp would provide a modest light for the household. To “bury” the one limited light in the windowless dwelling would go against plain common sense.
Verse 16 Proclamation in Matthew: Matt 3:1; 4:17, 23; 9:35; 10:7, 27; 11:1; 24:14; 26:13. There can also be inappropriate motives for witnessing: Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. (Matthew 6:1) While bearing witness, disciples are also not to draw attention to themselves. The full expression “your father in heaven” is found in Matthew only in the Sermon on the Mount. Thus restricted, it is one of the indicators that the sermon (technically an epitome, as noted) was already a discrete catechetical unit before Matthew incorporated it into his Gospel.
Pointers for prayer
1. Jesus uses the image of salt as something that makes food tasty. Without it food can be tasteless. Who are the people who give zest to your life and make it enjoyable? For whom have you done this? When have you been particularly aware of your potential in this regard?
2. The second image is that of light. Who have been the people who have been a light for you, particularly in moments of darkness? For whom have you been a light? Recall these experiences and give thanks.
3. The images of salt and light can also be applied to communities to which we belong, a family, a parish, or other group. Thinking of the groups of which you are a member, how can the potential be enhanced to enrich the lives of members and offer them a guiding light?
Heavenly Father, you have called your church to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
Give us vigorous faith and a love that is genuine, so that all may see our works and give you the glory.
We make our prayer through Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.