“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 underfoot.
“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. (Matthew 5:13-16 – NRSV)
“The introduction to the Sermon on the Mount contains four sections: the setting (5:1–2), the Beatitudes (5:3–12), the identity of Jesus’ followers (5:13–16), and the teaching about the Law (5:17–20). ….
The third unit of the introduction (5:13–16) continues the second person plural style of the final Beatitude (‘you are ….’). The sayings about salt and light are Matthew’s formulation of sayings found elsewhere in the Synoptic tradition (Mark 9:49–50/Luke 14:34–35 for salt, and Mark 4:21/Luke 8:16 for light). Along with the image of the ‘city set upon a mountain’, they serve to define the identity of those who follow Jesus faithfully. That identity is firmly rooted in Israel’s identity as God’s people (Isa 2:2–5). It also has significance for the world as a whole: ‘the salt of the earth’, ‘the light of the world’ that ‘gives light to all in the house’, and the ‘city set upon a mountain’ that is visible to all.” (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Liturgical Press, 2007, 82-83.
You are the salt of the earth: Apart from the obvious uses of salt – to flavor and preserve food – salt was traditionally used as a purifying agent. See for example: 2 Kings 2:19–22: “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.”
Ezekiel 16:4: “As for your birth, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in cloths.”
Perhaps we should simply focus on the fact that salt is a very basic commodity that makes life livable in a variety of ways, it gives savour and flavor in formal and informal settings. Just as food – indeed life itself – can be insipid without salt, so the disciple’s life is to bring joy and meaning to a life that would otherwise be banal and superficial.
You are the light of the world: “‘Light of the world’ is found in a range of Jewish sources applied to God, Adam, distinguished rabbis, Israel, the Torah and the temple, and Jerusalem. Cicero, Cat. 4:6, considered Rome ‘a light to the whole world’. Jn. 8:12 uses ‘the light of the world’ for Jesus (cf. Mt. 4:16). The closest OT texts are Is. 42:6; 49:6; 60:3, where the servant/Israel is a light to the nations. But the lack of the exact phrase there and the breadth of alternative background suggest that we should not read the Matthean phrase as a definite allusion. At most the identity of the disciples as the light of the world may be linked with the other indications that have been noticed of the role of Israel being carried forward by the disciple band. Light illuminates beneficially. Once again the text points to the universal significance of what is happening.” (John Nolland, “Preface” in The Gospel of Matthew: a commentary on the Greek text, W.B. Eerdmans, 2005, 213-214.)
One of my confreres had been a radio operator in a Lancaster bomber during the Second World War. His name was Allan Russell. Everyone called him Charlie. Charlie’s plane was shot down over Germany and he parachuted into the night and landed in the snow. As he was untangling himself he heard a voice: “For you the war is over!” A German soldier was behind him with a sub-machine gun. Charlie spent the remainder of the war in several different prisons. He did not enjoy that. On one occasion he and his mates were being marched to a different prison. Charlie was walking along, shoulders hunched, head down. An Australian officer and fellow prisoners came up beside him and said in a matter of fact manner: “Come on Russell. You can do better than that!” Charlie told me that story more than once, always with a glint in his eye and a smile on his face. The officer’s word made all the difference. (Allan Russell was born 26/2/1921, professed as a Marist 23/2/1955, ordained Priest 1959, died 13/2/2008.)
“You are the salt of the earth! You are the light of the world! …. You are …. better than what you know, more than what you can even imagine!” It is not unreasonable to take Jesus’ statements as referring to all human beings. In other words, like Jesus’ very life, everything he says and does responds to the question: “What does it mean to be a human being?” Not just a “Christian” but a human being.
In another context, Thomas Merton addresses the same question: “It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! …. I have the immense joy of being human, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” (Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Doubleday, 1989, 157.)
Our lives can become caught in a thicket of unreality, generated by family expectations, cultural demands, political ideologies, ethnicity, even “religion”. And of course we can contribute to this unreality out of our fears and anxieties, our selfishness and greed – and our ignorance. We can do better than that! It is about letting God be God in us, letting God love us into freedom. Of course getting out of the way is hard work. Do you think you are up for it?