Do you remember when you were a kid how much you just couldn't wait to grow up? I mean, there were those milestones we all looked forward to, those times when we were certain that if we could just reach that magical age we'd be as happy as we could ever dream. I remember when I was in my early teenage years how much I looked forward to turning sixteen. In fact, I turned sixteen in the year 2000, so I can remember, then, long before I was ever really religious, praying that if God could just hold off the approaching apocalypse until after I had my driver's license and a few months of legal driving under me, I'd be eternally grateful and do whatever it was God wanted me to do. I'm sure none of you has made such an irrational bargain with the Almighty before in your life. You see, I just wanted to drive, to experience the freedom that came with the open road and the feeling of controlling a one-ton metal machine all by myself. I couldn't wait to turn sixteen, to take that driver's test, to receive the little plastic card with my face on it in the mail that said I was a legal driver in the state of Alabama, a card that said to the world I was almost an adult.
Well, it seems God heard my prayer and did in fact put off the millennial apocalypse and you're welcome for that. The year 2000 came: I turned sixteen and got my driver's license. I didn't, however, have this great, emancipating experience that I had hoped for. You see, my family couldn't afford to buy me a car, so I had to get a job--which was fine, because I had convinced myself, after all, that I wanted a job--it was one step closer to adulthood, right? So I got a job working in the service department of the local Chevrolet dealership in the afternoons after school. I had a job, so I could have a car, so I could have a job, so I could have a car. You get the idea. I also quickly found out that being able to drive meant I was going to have to do other things, like take my younger sister places she needed to go or drive my grandmother to the grocery store on the weekends. It didn't take long for me to figure out that what I had once thought was this liberating life goal was in fact a mile marker of maturity and an increase in responsibility.
The followers of Jesus, I'm afraid we get caught up in this way of thinking more often than we realize. We get sort of swept up in the notion that there are these plateaus along the journey of discipleship, and once we reach those plateaus, well, we've made it. We can rest, because we've arrived at a place where God will bless us and encourage us, and all we really have to do is put life in cruise control, on autopilot, and just wait on eternity. But then...well, then we hear words from Jesus that call us to a deeper, more mature faith. We hear words from Jesus that call us to more responsibility in the kingdom of God. The words we've just heard from Christ's Sermon on the Mount in the fifth chapter of Matthew's gospel serve as a great example.
The opening words of the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, sound encouraging. They are words that speak of blessings, especially upon those who aren't so used to being blessed. However, verse 13 shifts the sermon into a different gear. Jesus says there:
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.
Salt. We are all salt. If you think about it, salt really is an amazing mineral. It enhances the flavor of our favorite foods, acts as a preservative, melts the ice on frozen steps and frozen roads, and it was of such great value in the ancient world that it was sometimes used as currency. In fact, the word "salary" comes from the practice of paying a worker with salt. Salt is a pretty amazing thing when it is used; but when it isn't used, when it's just salt, or when it has somehow lost its taste, it isn't much good for anything. In fact, salt by itself can be quite terrible, even corrosive. Being the "salt of the earth" implies that we have some function to perform, some responsibility in this kingdom of which Jesus speaks. Being the salt of the earth isn't about being something great and wonderful on our own; no, it's about being the ones who bring out the great and wonderful things of God's kingdom to others.
Now, if Jesus' salt metaphor in verse 13 is a little confusing, I think he clears things up pretty well in the three verses that follow. He says there:
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In 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.
Light. We are light, and light, like salt, is pretty amazing, so long as it's illuminating something else. Light by itself can be pointless, even destructive. That's why Jesus says we are to let our light shine before others, not ourselves, so that those others may see our good works and give glory--not to us--but to God. Did you catch that? It's subtle, but, oh, it's so very important. We shine as the light of the world not for our own sake, but for the sake of others. We give light so that others may see the way of God. In the end, it isn't really even our light that shine forth after all: it is God's light.
Salt and light are only useful when they enhance something else. We, as followers of Jesus, fulfill our roles as disciples when we flavor the earth and illuminate the world with our actions and words that ultimately point to Christ. As long as we see the life of faith as little more than a promise of reward, a future rest for a chosen few, we lose our flavor and our light is hidden under a basket.
The seriousness with which Jesus commands us to be salt and light can be heard in the final four verses of our text today. Here Jesus says:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For 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. Therefore, 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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
With these words, Jesus corrects any misunderstanding about how his followers are to understand the law and the prophets: he has not come to do away with them; rather, he has come to fulfill them. Not only is the call to discipleship one that commands a salty luminescence, it is also one that commands obedience to the fulfillment of the law and the teachings of the prophets. Now, I don't think Jesus was necessarily an early champion of inerrancy with his words here. No, I believe what Jesus is saying with these words is that he has come to fulfill the whole of the law and the prophets, to fill them with meaning and not allow them to simply be bullet points by which we judge one another's righteousness. After all, that was what the scribes and Pharisees did.
With these words about salt, light, and the fulfillment of the law and prophets, Jesus is setting before us, his followers, some very deep truths about what it means to be his disciples. When we feel that grace is just a ticket on the bus out of Hell, when we feel that our religion is just one of the defining characteristics of all of who we are, when we convince ourselves that our faith is really about how much better we can be than someone else by following more rules or abstaining from more vices, then we begin to lose our flavor. Then we begin to hide our light under the basket.
Let us not fall into the trap of the scribes and Pharisees whose righteousness was measured on the tally board of rules followed and rules broken. Let us not fool ourselves into believing that the call to follow Jesus is an easy, free ride into an eternity of comfort in plush mansions on gold-paved streets. We are the salt of the earth. We are the light of the world. May we flavor the earth with the truth of the One who has fulfilled the law of God. May we light the way of the One of whom the prophets could only dream. May we commit to being salt and light so that our righteousness may exceed the righteousness of those who keep tabs. May we commit ourselves to the One who calls us to the joyous responsibility of sharing the love of God with others as salt and light.
Let us pray. Eternal God, give us the strength to be salt and light to the world who needs our flavoring and our illuminating, as we point ultimately back to our Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.