Epiphany 5 • Matthew 5:13–20 • February 6, 2011
by Jeffrey A. Gibbs
The Text’s Limits: A Strong Suggestion
Although the lectionary has put together 5:13–16 and 5:17–20, I would strongly suggest separating them. A very solid case can be made for the view that 5:13–16 adhere closely to the Beatitudes (5:3–12). On the other hand, 5:17–20 introduce a new and significant topic in the Sermon on the Mount and mark a transition and introduction to the six so-called “antitheses” found in 5:21–48. To attempt to preach one unified sermon on 5:13–20 would be, I am convinced, practically impossible, and I recommend against it. In the brief comments that now follow, I will focus my attention entirely on 5:13–16, the “salt and light” sayings that apply to Jesus’s disciples who have just heard the Beatitudes (5:3–12).
Jesus’s Teaching: The Identity and Purpose of His Disciples
The doubly-metaphorical proclamation that “you, plural” are the salt of the earth and the light of the world addresses those who have just heard the nine-fold declara- tion of “blessed” in the Beatitudes. It would be folly to try to believe and live out the identity and purpose given in 5:13–16 without the power of blessing found in 5:3–12! Two comments on the Beatitudes will have to suffice; more extensive comments on the Beatitudes can be found in Jeffrey A. Gibbs, Matthew 1:1—11:1, pages 234–256. First, Beatitudes 1–4 (Mt 5:3–6) proclaim that human creatures who have nothing in themselves to offer God nevertheless receive all the gifts that have come through Jesus. To sum up, all the blessings of God’s reign in Jesus are given to the spiritually bankrupt, and that is why they are now profoundly and eternally blessed. Second, Beatitudes 5–8 (Mt 5:7–12) pronounce further blessing upon Jesus’s disciples who, by virtue of their relationship with him, have begun to be merciful, have received pure hearts, now work for Gospel peace, and may even suffer persecution. From beginning to end, the Beatitudes presuppose the “preaching of the Law”; only those who have begun to repent (3:2; 4:17!) can hear 5:3–12 aright. For such, Jesus speaks powerful, strengthening, reorienting gospel, both to Jesus’s original disciples and to all who will believe their message today.
In light of that blessedness, Jesus’s words in 5:13–16 to his disciples—all believers—can be understood to be a summary description and application of the doctrine of vocation; the words apply wherever you live. Both metaphors (since they are parallel, and the text shows no signs of intending a contrast) are positive ones. Both metaphors express an “objective” genitive. “You salt the earth; you enlighten the world.” The metaphorical use of “salt” in the scriptures and in the ancient world prevents any interpretation that is too specific: “flavoring,” “preserving,” etc. The picture, however, is just as positive as the second one. Light shines in darkness and shows the way; it alerts one to the presence of danger. Ultimately, the light of good works in the lives of Jesus’s disciples reveals the character of God the Father.
Jesus’s words do contain a warning and a possible rebuke. Although a literal impossibility, the Lord speaks of salt that has lost its flavor; he holds out the absurd arrangement of a lamp that is lit, only to be hidden under a basket. There is a danger that his disciples would forget or misunderstand the calling that they have received as those who have been blessed, forgiven, saved, and called. Lest disciples begin to forget, Jesus’s words are direct and clear: “Let your light shine in the presence of people” (5:16a). The nature of the light is also clear: “your good works” (5:16b). The purpose of shining of such light? That people will see the good work and recognize it as testimony to the heavenly Father. This purpose is to motivate what Christians do, individually and corporately. Whether or not the purpose comes to pass is up to God.
This reading thus invites the congregation to grasp by faith its identity as a community and to live not for themselves, but for others and for the world. In the Lutheran tradition (when it is badly misunderstood), “good works” can almost come to have a “bad name.” Not so with Jesus. Having filled his empty disciples with blessing (5:3–12), he names them salt and light and sends them out to their vocations and their communities as those who bless others with the goal of revealing what God, the Father of the Lord Jesus, is like. Just as surely as salt is a blessing and light brings hope and clarity, so Jesus’s disciples, by their good deeds, show others who their Father is.