Epiphany 5: Matthew 5:13-21
13“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 under foot. 14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In 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.
17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
I still remember dripping in the baptistry, looking out into the congregation with a lit candle in my hand and the sting of salt on my tongue. At 10 years old, I felt a new sense of responsibility to live in a way that would point others to Jesus. But Jesus isn’t really pointing to himself. He is pointing at the crowd: “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” “You!” I will spare you the normal preacher’s exposition of the uses and functions of salt, because what is more interesting to me are the subversive, empowering words,“light of the world.” In the Psalms God is described as “light”. Later, the rabbis would similarly describe the Torah as “a mediator of light.” Jesus is beautifully reminding his people of their intrinsic value and immeasurable power as those created in the image of God.
But there is even deeper meaning here. The exact phrase, “light of the world” was also how Rome described it’s own system of civilizing power. Jesus is providing an alternative narrative to a people oppressed from within and without. He reminds his hearers that the divine light radiates from religious leaders and religiously outcast alike. In Jesus’ vision the homeless leper is just as much the presence of God as the temple priest. The prayers of the prostitute are just as profound as those of the Pharisee. Both the “persecuted” and powerful of Israel could live to their potential in as much as they were “poor in spirit”, “hungry for justice”, “merciful”, “peacemakers”.
The remarkable thing is that Jesus’s alternative to Roman domination does not even exclude the romans themselves. Jesus fights dehumanization by humanizing the oppressor, recognizing the humble faith of the centurion. A glimpse of Isaiah’s dream of his people being a “light to the nations”.
I used to believe that being the “light of the world” meant that there was something about who I was and what I believed that others needed to accept to escape from darkness. I was the conquering Roman, or the enforcer of religious hierarchy, rejecting those who did not assimilate. While it is true that I have light to offer , I am beginning to see that I need the light of others (whoever they might be) to find my own potential. Thanks be to God for that.