Jean’s Gospel: You Are the Salt of the Earth
Suffering as a Christian for doing good is not enjoyable or something to seek out for oneself, but neither is it meaningless or in vain; its purpose is redemptive.
Peter refers to it as sharing in Christ’s sufferings (1 Pet 4:13). Jesus never conceals the cost of discipleship from his disciples.
But against this real, but temporary, cost, Jesus in nine Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-12) promises his disciples the treasury of heaven: salvation and eternal life; comfort from all mourning; the earth as an inheritance; God’s righteousness completed in Jesus; God’s mercy; seeing God; being called sons of God; and being identified with the prophets of the old testament.
“You are the salt of the earth….You are the light of the world.” (Matt 5:13-14)
Our reading on “salt” and “light” is related to the issue of Christian suffering and is connected to the ninth Beatitude (Matt 5:11-12). In the ninth Beatitude, Jesus repeats and expands on the eighth Beatitude and changes the address from a general announcement (“are those” / “for they”) to a direct and personal address – “are you” / “for your”. The ninth beatitude repeats and expands on the blessedness of the disciple who is persecuted. The persecution for “righteousness sake” in the eighth Beatitude becomes in the ninth Beatitude: insults, persecution and slander on “my account.” The righteousness which the world persecutes is that which Jesus came to fulfill as “Immanuel”, which means God with us (Matt 1:23).
“You are the salt of the earth,” (Matt 5:13a)
Salt is essential for human life. It also is used as a flavoring agent and as a preservative. Jesus calls his disciples “salt.” Christians are not something else which dispense salt. Nor do they make themselves into salt. It is the work of God that makes a Christian salt.
This salt is for the whole world. It is not for itself; nor is it limited to the church. The Christian is salt for the unbelieving world, as well as for other Christians who are under assault from the devil, the flesh or the world. In this way salt is redemptive: it is life giving; it helps life flourish; and it preserves life.
Salt is known for its function. A Christian is to “lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.” (1 Cor 7:17) This means that each Christian is salt in her individual vocations, whether in the family, the workplace, in civil society, in church or as a missionary. In this way, the entire earth is salted.
“but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored?” It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” (Matt 5:13b)
The Beatitudes illustrate the function of salt. For example, Christians are peacemakers (Matt 5:9). They proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who came as the “Prince of Peace” (Isa 9:6) to reconcile God and man. Paul referred to his own calling as a “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18). Christians also promote peace by “forgiv[ing] others their trespasses” (Matt 6:14). Jesus promises Christian peacemakers that “they shall be called sons of God” (Matt 5:9).
Closely related to peacemaking, Christians also are “merciful” (Matt 5:7). They love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them (Matt 5:44). They follow the example of Jesus, who loved his enemies and from the cross prayed for them: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) Jesus promises merciful Christians that “they shall receive mercy.” (Matt 5:7)
The difficulty arises because the world, under the influence of Satan, hates Christ, his church and his salt. Thus, Christians are reviled, persecuted and slandered for being salt. When this happens, Jesus says “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt 5:13)
But our faith is often weak. It is so difficult to rise up in faith above our present sufferings to behold with gladness only Christ’s promises. Therefore, we are tempted to close our mouths or change our doctrines along with our works, so that we no longer offend and bear the reproach of the unbelieving world. If that happens, the salt has lost its taste; it is no longer salt. The warning of being thrown out and trampled under people’s feet is against apostasy and eternal judgment, whether as a result of falling away or from false teaching.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.” (Matt 5:14-15)
The metaphor of light is closely associated with salt, but is more familiar in the Gospels. Jesus’ ministry is the fulfillment of prophesy which told of the coming light: “the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” (Matt 4:16) The Gospel according to John beautifully elaborates on the motif of light.
The idea of a lamp carries the nuance of a communion of believers, the church, which in a communal sense, can be seen by everyone. Light also is redemptive in that: first, it is life giving; and second, by dispelling the darkness, light exposes what the darkness conceals, so that sin and evil may be rooted out.
From these attributes, we can see that the preaching of the Word of God is in view with the metaphor of “light.” There is no eschatological threat connected with being the light of the world, but the association of a lamp on a stand is also made in Revelation in which the seven churches are referred to as seven lampstands (Rev 1:20). Jesus can remove the lampstand, if the church fails to carry out its purpose of faithfully proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 5:14-16)
The works of Christ’s salt and light in the world are redemptive. The reviling, persecution and slander, which accompany these works, causing temporary sufferings, are not in vain. Unbelievers will give glory to God our Father when they encounter the redemptive love of Jesus through the good works of Christians, who proclaim the Gospel, live as peacemakers and are merciful.
Therefore, Christians must not withdraw from the world, but instead should rejoice in the blessedness announced by Jesus in the Beatitudes, drawing faith from the wellspring of Christ’s promises. In this way, may God our Father, through Jesus Christ our Lord, strengthen us in faith towards him and in fervent love towards one another, so that we may function as salt and light in and for this fallen world to the glory of God our Father. Amen.