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The Reverend Kathleen Killian

Epiphany 5 A/23

Isaiah 58:1-9a, [9b-12]

1 Corinthians 2:1-12, [13-16]

Matthew 5:13-20

February 5th 2023


Salt and Light

Identity and Vocation 

The gospel this morning is a continuation of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Our passage directly follows the Beatitudes, which we heard last Sunday, and Jesus’ challenging reversal of the common understanding of blessing and who is blessed.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which we will hear from again next Sunday, is no 10-12 minute sermon but rather goes on for three long chapters in Matthew and concludes by Jesus saying: those who hear and do what I have taught is like a wise person who builds their house on a rock; but those who do not hear or do not do what I have taught is like a foolish person who builds their house on sand (Matthew 7:24-27). 

This tells us something about who we are and what we are called to do. Wise or foolish, we all are builders and co-creators of the house of our lives. Indeed, identity—who we are—and vocation—what we are called to do—are at the heart not only of our gospel passage today but of Jesus’ whole mission and ministry. 

Let us remember that Jesus did not preach and minister in a vacuum but to the crowd of individuals in crises of health and conscience. He ministered and preached to Israel, God’s chosen people returned home from exile yet occupied by the Roman Empire. Many of the religious elite and wealthy ruling class sought answers of collaboration with the Romans, while others such as the Zealots sought to overthrow the Roman government by violent means. Yet into his small inner circle, Jesus called both Simon who was a zealot and Matthew who was a despised tax collector for the Roman government—natural enemies on polar sides of pressing issues. 

As diverse and even polarized as Jesus’ followers were then, and now, Jesus yet calls us to the same identity and vocation, saying: you are the salt of the earth. As salt, we are meant to give flavor and taste as well as preservation and safeguarding to God’s beloved community on earth. As an antiseptic, salt is healing and yet can also sting, abrade, and cause thirst. What kind of salt are you, and what kind of salt do you provide? 

Jesus says: you are the light of the world. As light, we are meant to provide illumination, revealing and dispelling the darkness in God’s beloved community on earth. Light gives energy and warmth, and causes growth, and yet can be harsh, blinding, and burning. What kind of light are you? What kind of light do you shine?

Neither of the images of salt and light are “new.” Jesus draws from the rich imagery of Hebrew scripture. In Genesis, light is the first manifestation of God’s creative word (Genesis 1:1-4) which God declares is “good.” Then throughout the Old Testament God appears to people as light or fire; light signifying divine presence, blessings, truth, wisdom, justice, righteousness, and the final cosmic eschatological revelation of God. 

References to salt and its use as preservative and purifier are numerous in the Old Testament; from 2 Chronicles (13:5), we read that the LORD, the God of Israel, has given the kingship of Israel to David and his descendants forever by a covenant of salt; and from Leviticus (2:13) that the salt of the covenant with God is not to be left out of grain offerings; salt is to be added to all offerings. Jewish newborns were to be rubbed in salt (Ezekiel 16:4), and Roman soldiers were paid in part with salt; if a soldier was “not worth their salt,” their salarium or salary was cut, the word salary derived from the word salt. 

And in the Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, an overturned saltcellar lays in front of Judas Iscariot, signifying his betrayal of Jesus. 

Perhaps most importantly is that both salt and light are foundational to life, and both are natural agents that act with impartiality. Anymore then salt apportions its preservation does light shine selectively; and while salt is tangible and material and light is perceptible and abstract, both are essential to life and of essence to our lives as followers of Jesus. Salt and light are ancient and everyday realities that Jesus uses to teach us about our identity and vocation, and thus about who God is. Through our embodied multi-sensory responses to them, these images are revelatory of the Holy One. 

Perhaps the saltiness that Jesus admonishes us not to lose are the qualities of the Beatitudes, that we maintain the saltiness of our character through poverty of spirit and heart, and depth of seeking the good; through pouring out love and blessing to others in acceptance and forbearance of all life; through speaking truth, not as indictment or accusation but in authenticity and fulfillment of the law, Jesus assuring Israel: do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 

In our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah this morning, Israel’s people and their fast, or their spiritual discipline and religious duty, has essentially lost its “saltiness” or sincerity; God says to them: Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day . . . look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist (Isaiah 58:1-12)—not to provide a blessing and safeguard. 

Perhaps the light that Jesus admonishes us not to squelch or hide is the blessing of which Jesus speaks, the blessing of God flowing through the least of us; as people of God and a kingdom of priests, our job is to walk into the dark corners of the world and our hearts, carrying with us a candle, a lantern, a spotlight, even a small ember. We are meant to carry the light no matter how faint or small. 

In our Epistle, Paul allows himself to be seen by the light of the Spirit shining through him. He is exposed and vulnerable, saying: I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit [of light] and of power. 

Being who we are in Christ means that we are vulnerable to the spirit who searches everything, even the depths of God, that we are transformed into the image of God so light and salt flow through us. This light and this salt are not ours alone but Gods, each of us unique vessels through which God manifests in a multiplicity of ways. 

May the images of salt and light evoke the remembrance of who we are—people of the earth—and what we are called to do. Jesus sends us into the world to live out his ministry and preaching, his healing and his words. His Incarnation, that is now our own points to and means the essential holiness of all things in the righteousness of God’s love.