By Minister Emily Cui
You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on the stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. -Matthew 5: 13-16
These verses come from a well-known discourse, called ‘The Sermon on the Mount’. In Matthew’s gospel, the Sermon begins with chapter 5 and ends with chapter 7. Here, Jesus is further unpacking the prior section, namely, the Beatitudes, for His listeners and His disciples. And as He often does, Jesus turns to common household objects to illustrate His points, in this case salt and light.
Salt is one of the most common seasonings we use on a daily basis. But apart from its culinary use, lesser known things about salt is that it’s also a disinfectant agent, an element for fertilization, as well as a preservative. In ancient times, due to the lack of refrigeration techniques salt was largely used to preserve meat and fish for weeks on end. Because of this, the Rabbis sometimes would refer to Yahweh’s covenant as the “Salt Covenant,” suggesting that the nature of such a covenant was to preserve God’s people as God’s people.
Notice that Jesus now refers to His disciples as the salt of the earth. As I’ve pondered its meaning, the Lord brought to mind another illuminating passage. Later in Matthew’s gospel, he recorded another one of Jesus’ teachings, where He warns them to “be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matt. 16:5-12). When we place these two images, that is, salt and yeast, side by side, it makes more sense. For instance, yeast, like salt, is also a common kitchen product, which the ancients would’ve frequently used to make bread. Yeast, however, is a microorganism that ferments dough, whereas salt mitigates such processes by slowing down and eventually halting the process. So, what does this tell us?
In this passage, Jesus is calling His followers to act in a similar way. That is, as they walk according to grace and truth, disciples should mitigate and counteract the fermentation of hypocrisy and false teaching, so to speak. “[For the Pharisees] tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them,” and “[they] shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. [They themselves] do not enter, nor will [they] let those enter who are trying to” (Matt. 23:4, 13b-14b).
Disciples, though, are not only called to resist hypocrisy and false teaching, but they are also called to do good works before others so that God may receive glory and honor. Now I can imagine how this might sound to modern readers: “Do good works? Sure! To bring glory and honor to my Father who is in Heaven? Absolutely! Before others? Yes, Lord!? Now wait a minute! Jesus, I thought you exhorted us to guard against the ways of the Pharisees. After all, I mean, didn’t you warn us not to be like the hypocrites, who love to be seen by others in the synagogues and on the street corners when they do good works? Didn’t you just teach us not to let our right hand know what our left hand is doing?”
At this point, we have to ask, is Jesus contradicting Himself? Short answer: No, He is not. On the one hand, we are called to go into our rooms and close the door when we pray to our Heavenly Father. In our daily obedience to Christ, there is undoubtedly a real need for alone time with Him, that is, in the form of quiet times/devotionals, meditation, and prayer. My relationship, and your relationship, with the Lord is a personal one, and no persons or objects can substitute for that relationship. Yet, on the other hand, Christian discipleship is not a private matter. It is not meant to be hidden behind closed doors.
We see this when Jesus calls us to be light. When it is lit, a lamp is meant to give light to all those who are around it. And Christians are disciples who follow Him and walk in His divine light (Acts 11:26c). Thus, they are commissioned to carry God’s light into a world of darkness in and through their public obedience to Christ. But, again, it starts by first allowing the light of the Lordship of Christ to penetrate all the areas of darkness in our own lives. These areas include – but are not limited to – how we manage our time, how we budget our wealth and resources, how we decide which colleges to apply to, which careers to go into, which sort of person we consider marrying, and so forth.
Contrary to what some people believe, Jesus did not die as a motivator for us to study harder, to enter ivy league colleges, to go off living in the safety of middle-class suburbia, to then become banal law-abiding citizens. Of course, not that attending an ivy league school, living in the suburbs, and adhering to the governing authorities are inherently and always immoral. The point is that Jesus’ sacrifice calls us to dream bigger and to dream beyond worldly things. He calls us to something far better.
As Jesus’ disciples, we are called to enter into the world as salt and light, to bring blessings to those who are poor in sprit, to comfort those who mourn, to bless the meek who will inherit the earth, to fill those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, to show mercy to the merciful, to see God with the pure hearted, to be peacemakers as children of God, and to bless those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.
Lastly, Christ calls us ‘blessed’ when we are insulted, falsely accused, and persecuted for His sake. What does that mean? Well, there’s a part of King David’s story that beautifully captures this. Recall, when David was freely given the threshing floor, how he intended to build God’s temple upon it: “But the king replied to Araunah, ‘No, I insist on paying you for it, for I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.’ So, David bought the threshing floor and the oxen and paid fifty shekels of silver for them” (2 Samuel 24:24).
As you are reading this at the start of Holy Week, remember that Jesus has triumphantly entered Jerusalem. Initially, the crowd received Him as their King, as their long awaited Messiah: “Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna to the Highest!” His light shined before human beings in such a way that they have seen His good works, and thereby glorified the Father. But only five days later, He was falsely accused, wrongfully arrested, illegally tried, brutally beaten, flogged and nailed to the Cross, by the very same crowd who welcomed Him into Jerusalem. We find ourselves standing in the midst of that crowd, welcoming Him but then rejecting Him right after. Nonetheless, by His sacrifice, we are now forgiven and made new. We have become salt and light. So, “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Amen, Lord!
Emily Cui is the Campus Minister at the Calvary Baptist Church of New Haven. Commissioned by Ambassadors for Christ, she primarily works with graduate students at Yale University, sharing with them the good news of the gospel and helping them grow in discipleship.
See Matthew 23 for more details regarding what Jesus had to say about the Pharisees and the teachers of the law.