A New Righteousness
Grace & Fairview United Methodist Churches
March 16, 2014
Matthew 5: 13-37 (CEB)
“You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet. 14 You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. 15Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.
17“Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them. 18I say to you very seriously that as long as heaven and earth exist, neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen will be erased from the Law until everything there becomes a reality. 19Therefore, whoever ignores one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called the lowest in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever keeps these commands and teaches people to keep them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20I say to you that unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the legal experts and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
21“You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder,and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment…
33“Again you have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago: Don’t make a false solemn pledge, but you should follow through on what you have pledged to the Lord. 34But I say to you that you must not pledge at all. You must not pledge by heaven, because it’s God’s throne. 35You must not pledge by the earth, because it’s God’s footstool. You must not pledge by Jerusalem, because it’s the city of the great king. 36And you must not pledge by your head, because you can’t turn one hair white or black. 37Let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no. Anything more than this comes from the evil one.
There is this great Appalachian folk tale that follows the patterns of Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” The story goes something like this. A man goes to his three daughters with the question, “How much do you love me?” The older daughters immediately begin to fawn over their father, comparing their love for him to things like gold and silver and the finest jewels. The youngest daughter sits silently for many moments, watching her sisters as they strive to please their father with their answers. When they finish, the father turns to his youngest daughter, who has remained quiet, and asks her once again, “How much do you love me?”
The youngest daughter looks to her father. It was clear she had been thinking hard about her answer, and she said, “I love you like meat loves salt.” Well, her father flew into a rage. Compared to gold, and silver, and the finest jewels, salt is nothing. The father was incensed, convinced that his youngest daughter must have no love for him at all. So his reaction was to cast the young daughter from the home. She was banished. And so she did the only thing she could do, she left.
In so many ways, it was as if nothing had changed for the Father and his remaining daughters, and his life went on. Then one night, the Father sat down to dinner with his family. It was a special night, and there were lavish slabs of meat on every plate. He was anxious to dig in, and he quickly did. However, the meat was not nearly as satisfying as he was expecting. Now rather annoyed, the Father began investigating to find out what was wrong with the meat. What he soon discovered was that there was no salt in the house, so the meat had not been salted.
And suddenly, he understood. He ran from the house in search of his youngest daughter. He had lost touch with her, and it had been months since he banished her from his presence. He searched high and low, hill and valley. It took days, but he finally found her. And when he did, he pulled her into his arms and said, “I love you like meat loves salt.”
As we listen to Jesus this morning, we begin with this image of salt and light. These are sort of normal, ordinary things. They are a regular part of our lives without us really giving any thought to it. And yet, we hear now Jesus saying, “You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.” And suddenly, we have to really open our eyes to the true significance of light and salt in our lives. Because when we understand that, we can begin to understand what Jesus is calling out of his disciples as he speaks to them on the mountainside.
The Appalachian folk tale gives us a great sense of the significance of salt, doesn’t it? Salt transforms things. Salt brings out and enhances the flavor of foods. Salt takes what is plain and makes it extraordinary, which is exactly why meat loves salt. In the same way, light makes things visible. Light shows the way. Light illumines the darkness, even to such an extent that, as John tells us, when “light shines in the darkness, the darkness cannot extinguish it.” Light and salt may seem a small thing, but when put to good use, they can make an amazingly huge impact!
So are you hearing Jesus’ words? Salt and light are seemingly ordinary things that expose better qualities, that transform, and improve the things of this world. And Jesus is saying to us, “You be salt. You be light.” Which means Jesus is calling us to be people working in the world in such a way that by the power of Christ, WE are the ones who bring out the best in others and in the world around us, WE are the ones who ignite positive transformation and improvement. Christ wants us to be the ones who turn the ordinary to the exciting, and the darkness to the light. Well now, salt and light aren’t so ordinary anymore, are they? This is a HUGE task that Jesus places upon his disciples. But here’s the thing, he doesn’t stop with this call. Christ goes on to give us some ideas of what it might actually look like to live out our roles as salt and light in the world.
You may be aware that Jesus lived in a very turbulent time. And he found himself as a very controversial figure in what was an already volatile religious environment. The various flavors of Jews were locked in an ongoing debate about the true place of worship, the law, and the ritual purity practices. And Jesus stepped right in to that debate with some radically new ideas. You heard several of them in the scripture reading this morning. It is this series of teachings, each of which begins with, “You have heard it said…, but I say to you…”
In this series of antitheses, which we begin this week and will continue next week, Jesus speaks the all-familiar law to the crowds gathered around him, and then he casts it in a new light. What will be interesting to the folks listening to him is the fact that he prefaces these antitheses by proclaiming that he has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. So we need to understand right up front that what Jesus is not offering is a replacement of the law, but rather a greater fulfillment of the spirit of the law. Sounds a little like salt, doesn’t it? And Jesus gives us a few very tangible examples to consider.
“You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment.” What Jesus wants us to understand is that when God issued the commandment not to kill another person, it wasn’t just that God didn’t want us to take the life of another. God doesn’t even want us to allow those feelings of anger and rage to foster and grow within us. Because if we do allow that, then we are just as liable to judgment as those who act out and murder their adversary.
Now, I want to stop here and do a little experiment. Raise your hand if you’ve ever murdered another person. Hopefully, of course, no one is going to raise their hand. Now raise you’re hand if you’ve ever been angry with someone. And keep your hand up if you did not take any action to reconcile with that person? You see the problem here, and even though we haven’t committed murder, we are still subject to God’s judgment because we have allowed feelings of rage against our brothers and sisters to take hold of our lives. This is a terrible thing to live with, which is why Jesus goes on, as you heard, to give us specific examples of how to go about reconciling with our adversaries. Can you imagine what a different place our world would be if we dealt with our anger according to Jesus’ directions? This is what it means to be salt and light.
Still, Jesus doesn’t stop there. After illuminating the true intention of the law against murder, Jesus moves on to adultery and divorce. This is a part of Jesus’ teaching that we often ignore because it’s hard for us to hear in our modern context. We know the prevalence of divorce, probably most of us in this room are related to someone who has been divorced, or we ourselves are divorced. And now we hear Jesus saying no divorces except in the case of infidelity, and anyone who divorces and remarries commits adultery. The tendency when we hear these words is to soften Jesus’ message, which is indeed what many commentators do, saying that Jesus was trying to improve the quality of life for women whose husbands divorced them for no good reason, leaving them with no livelihood. Certainly, that may have been part of Jesus’ message, we really have no way of knowing for sure. But I think we need to look at this in connection with Jesus’ message of salt and light. I believe that was Jesus’ original intention anyway, and why he prefaced these words about the law with a message about salt and light. This becomes a part of living into Jesus’ calling to make this world a better place. How can we be light in the face of the darkness of a sexually charged culture where adultery is so prevalent? What are our opportunities to be salt and light in the world in such a way that divorces are reduced and we take more seriously our covenants and commitments?
And just in case we need to be reminded of what it means to take our pledges seriously, Jesus speaks to that as well. Jesus understands that when it comes to pledges, the problem is not taking God’s name in vain. Instead, the problem is human truthfulness. People created all these ways to “prove” their commitment to truth because they weren’t really being truthful, they weren’t following through on their covenants, which is still true of us today, isn’t it? We do this all the time. And the thing Jesus wants us to understand is that calling upon heaven and earth as a backing of our pledge is not going to change the way WE act. So Jesus says to us, if you’re going to commit to something, commit to it. Period. End of story. There is no need to call upon God to ratify our covenants, rather, the need is to simply be truthful. Again, how is the world transformed when people are completely honest and truthful in their words and actions? Things begin to change for the better, don’t they, just as if light has illumined the darkness.
Certainly, this is a lot to take in. And what we need to know is that as Jesus reiterates and the reinterprets the law before the crowds, he’s not just trying to stir the pot in this ongoing debate about true Judaism. Jesus is actually interpreting for the people God’s intention behind the law from the very beginning! It’s so easy for us to become legalistic in our lives. We forget the meaning behind our routines, our rituals, even our patterns of life. And that’s what was happening among the Jewish people of the day. It was all about strict observance of the “Law” exactly as it was written on the page. There was this “old” righteousness structuring the lives of God’s people, and the people had lost touch with God’s reason for giving the law in the first place. So Jesus “turns on the light”, he directs the people toward a new righteousness, he sprinkles some salt on the bland practices of God’s people, and then he says, “Now you go do the same.”
This is an amazing task! And it’s not easy, either; to live in this world without anger or lust or divorce, to conduct ourselves with complete integrity, never lying or failing to uphold our covenants and commitments. But in so many ways, this is what it means to be salt and light. We become a part of something that is much better. We start the process that transforms the world around us, gradually illumining the darkness, bringing out the best in ourselves and our neighbors, making our world so much better than it has ever been. When we are salt and light in the world, then Christ’s love is shared all around us, and people everywhere will know that they are loved, just “like meat loves salt.”
I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of anything better!