“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).
We find similar texts in Mark 9.50 (salt) & 4:23 (light) and Luke 14.34–35 (salt) & 8:16-18 (light).
This text is part of Matthew’s introduction to the Sermon on the Mount – see 5:1-7:29. That introduction has 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)” (Daniel J Harrington, SJ, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 82).
The metaphors of salt and light become references for the identity of those who will be disciples of Jesus: “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 SJ, op cit, 83).
Bearing in mind that this text immediately precedes a section given over to a lengthy reflection in the Sermon on the Mount comparing and contrasting the “Old Law” and the “New Law”, the metaphors of salt and light may be interpreted as pointing to the “New Law” superseding the “Old Law”. (See Henry Wansbrough OSB, “St Matthew” in A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, edited by Reginald C Fuller et al, London: Nelson, 1969, 716j.)
salt: “Strictly speaking salt cannot lose its flavour and remain salt, but in Judaism it can become unclean and need to be thrown out. Salt is both a spice and a preservative. So is a good teacher. The description of the fate of the salt uses imagery for the divine judgement” (Benedict T Viviano OP, “The Gospel According to Matthew” in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E Brown SS et al, London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1990, 42:25). The people would have been familiar with the reference to salt, not only as something that made food edible but it is something that makes the offering to God acceptable. Thus in the Book of Leviticus we read: “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). And in the Prophet Ezekiel we read: “You shall present them before the LORD, and the priests shall throw salt on them and offer them up as a burnt offering to the LORD” (Ezekiel 43:24).
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill: The prophecy of Isaiah is “the background” to this text: “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. …. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!” (Isaiah 2:2-3 & 5). “In Isa 42:6; 49:6 Israel’s vocation is to be a ‘light to the nations’. Paul picked up this theme of Israel’s vocation in Rom 2:19 (‘a light to those who are in darkness’). The light imagery is developed in the sayings in 5:15–16 in which Jesus’ followers are challenged to active engagement in their ‘good works’. The goal of these works is that other people might come to praise God (5:16). The epithet ‘your Father who is in heaven’ (5:16) is characteristically Matthean in comparison with the other NT writers and is a typical Jewish way of talking about God in prayer” (See Daniel J Harrington, op cit, 80.)
Jesus’ teaching typically appeals first to the imagination. He is constantly inviting his listeners to discover a different way of being through imagining new possibilities. If we hear Jesus’ words as if they were simply statements of doctrine or law, we will miss an encounter with the incomprehensible depths of God’s love and goodness and truth and mercy. It might be helpful, for example, if we placed the word “imagine” at the beginning of all his parables – “Imagine a sower …. Imagine a woman …. Imagine a man who has two sons ….” And so on.
But it is not only his parables that appeal to our imaginations. In today’s Gospel – Matthew 5:13-16 – we hear Jesus compare discipleship to being salt and light. “Imagine you are salt …. Imagine you are light …. ” We are then plunged into what the Zen tradition would call a Koan – a riddle without a solution. Look closely at the text. Jesus is inviting us to imagine salt that has become tasteless. This is impossible! Salt is salt. It cannot be tasteless. In effect, Jesus is saying “Imagine you are like salt that is not salt (because it has become tasteless)”. Stay with it. Then he says: “Imagine that you are light that is not light (because it cannot be seen)”. Stay with that. Our deepest capacity for knowing is beyond rational concepts and answers. It is also beyond anything we can imagine. Yet it is our capacity to imagine that opens the door to the depths that remain closed to the rational mind and its clear and distinct ideas, its expectations of being able to contain reality within its “answers”.
The Koan – which is always an exposition or an unveiling rather than an imposition or an invention – is an affront to the Western mind. The fact that life is a mystery to be lived not a problem to be solved is a scandal. The modern Western mindset proceeds on the basis that knowledge is power and power represents control. The Koan – whether it comes from the Zen master, or Jesus or from life itself – reminds us that, ultimately, true knowledge leads to surrender and awe.
One of the drivers in biblical fundamentalism must surely be the anxiety provoked by Jesus’ unwillingness to give us clear answers to all life’s questions. If Jesus will not give those answers, so the rationale of fundamentalism goes, we must give them. This is a very dangerous and potentially destructive path to tread.
We do not go to the Bible primarily for answers. Our yearning for “answers” is almost certainly a yearning for control, to assuage our anxiety – a disguised form of idolatry therefore. The Bible is a place of encounter. We go to the Bible in search of the “I AM WHO I AM” – see Exodus 3:1-15. We are there, before the Eternal Word, unknowing face to face with the Unknowable. And so we learn to know as we are known – see 1 Corinthians 13:12.