What You Are
by David Faulkner
I’ve probably heard a couple dozen sermons on Matthew 5:13-16. I’ve also preached a few. As I recall, most if not all of those sermons centered on the need to go out into the world and be salt and light. Often both terms were described as synonymous with the gospel. I even have, in my library, a little book about evangelism titled Out of the Salt-Shaker. In other words, the main focus of interpretation on Matthew 5:13-16 seems to be what we are to do.
But the more I look at these four verses, the more I think we’ve got this wrong. Jesus doesn’t say, “Be the salt of the earth,” and, “Be the light of the world.” Rather he says we are those things. It is part of our nature as the redeemed of the Lord to be salt and light. It’s not optional and it’s not something we do.
The reason there are salt shakers on most American dinner tables today is because we use salt to enhance flavor. Indeed some people use too much salt to enhance flavor. My uncle used to salt things until they were white, and in the end all that salt killed him. But in the world of Jesus’ day you would look hard for a salt-shaker on most diner tables. The reason was that, in that hot climate and that world that had no refrigeration, salt was used largely as a preservative. When Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth,” his disciples would have thought not of salting their food, but of a barrel of salted fish. Most meat was salted and many vegetables were pickled to keep them from rot. In the Roman Empire fresh meat could go bad in a day. Even when a Jew ate fresh meat, as at the Passover, the lamb was eaten not with salt, but with bitter herbs.
Those whom God has made righteous through grace act like salt in the earth just because of what they are. Abraham bargained with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. He started out asking God to relent in the destruction of those places if he could find fifty righteous people in them. He actually talked God all the way down to ten. Just ten righteous people in those cities could have saved everyone in them. If God had found those ten righteous, the people of those cities would have been spared, and would have been forever in debt to those righteous folks.
When I was in high school our youth group sponsored the visit of an evangelist to our church. His name was Joe Morone. Take away Joe’s Bible and give him a violin case and he would have been the spitting image of a TV mafioso. But he could preach the gospel. I recall he used to say, “If God lets America continue on its present course, He’ll have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah, Tyre and Sidon and all the other places He has destroyed because of their sin.” We hear statements like that today. I think the people who make them forget about Abraham and his bargain. God is a God of infinite patience. As long as there are people being salt and light in our country, that saltiness will preserve us.
I’m not saying we should not worry about divine judgment. It could come any time. But I am saying we Christians need to recognize our role as holding it off, protecting and preserving the world. It seems to me a lot of people long for God’s wrath to fall. Job did. He asked God why He didn’t set regular times for judgment and then come and give everybody what they deserved. That would make things far easier. The wicked would get what they’ve got coming to them on a regular basis, and in the same way the righteous would receive regular rewards.
Instead God places us, those He has made righteous through Jesus Christ, in the world to preserve it. His judgment will be stayed so long as there are enough of us who haven’t lost what Jesus calls our “saltiness” to protect this world from judgment. We don’t know how many that is. But I’ll bet there are a lot of people out there who have never considered that it is only our presence in this country, in this world, that prevents this world from falling into complete decay and ruin. The world owes us a debt for that, one they don’t recognize.
Further, just because of what we are, we are also this world’s light. In John Jesus calls himself the light of the world. The way John speaks about light in his Gospel and first epistle often colors the way we see Jesus’ words to the disciples in Matthew 5. But Jesus is not talking here about taking the gospel into the world. He is telling us what we are. As Christians we are the light of the world.
It is in this context that Jesus finally gives us a command, to, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven.” In effect Jesus is telling us to be what we are. God has made us salt, so let’s be salt and try to stop the spread of rot in the world. God has made us light so let’s show that we are the light by the way we live. So the command is there, but it is a command to be what we are, not to make ourselves what we are not. That may not seem like much of a difference, but it is. It’s the difference between being forced to obey a list of commands and taking joy in showing the world what a wonderful thing God has done for us in Jesus Christ. It’s the difference between “have to” and “love to.”
The world Jesus stepped into was a foul, filthy place. I never realized how bad things were until I read Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s Killing Jesus. Jesus being what he was, and his disciples being what God made them changed the world radically. Though there is still plenty of filth and rot, without the salt and light of Christians, we would have drowned in our own moral garbage before now. Through all the centuries Jesus’ followers have answered the challenge to be what they, by nature are in the place where God has put them. Each of us still face that challenge. In Christ God has made us new creatures. Those who have been so remade will be salt and light in their world. They can’t help themselves. They must be what they are. Does the world around you know what you are?