“Salt & Light” Colchester Federated Church, February 5, 2023, (Matthew 5:13-20) Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

There’s this great book called Jesus: A Pilgrimage by Father James Martin.  It explores Jesus as he appears in the Gospels and through the lens of Martin’s education, experience, prayer, and a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  When contemplating Jesus teaching his followers (like we heard in today’s story as we continue to engage Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount), James Martin muses that Jesus was a worker before he embarked on his itinerant ministry.  There’s an early Christian tradition that Jesus as a tekton (the Greek word that we translate into English as “woodworker” or “carpenter”) could have even fashioned yokes for oxen.  In Jesus’ day, only the most talented among the tektons would have made yokes because they couldn’t cause chafing or discomfort for the oxen. 

As an aside, clergy in our tradition wear stoles upon ordination as a symbol of our office, symbolizing the yoke we carry as pastors and teachers.  There is a formality about this tradition.  Nicole always explains on Confirmation Sunday that our Discipleship students make their own stoles to symbolize their faith journeys and carrying the church forward too (by comparing me to an ox!).  Thanks, Nicole.  The garment itself is unique.  Whenever I’ve had to get stoles dry cleaned over the years a confused employee always rings it up as a “scarf” in the system.  Eh, close enough! 

Back to yokes.  Isn’t it fascinating to think that Jesus as a tekton could have fashioned yokes for oxen prior to beginning his ministry?  James Martin wonders, “When Jesus said, ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light,’ did people of his day, who knew what an easy yoke was, smile to themselves and say, ‘Yes, he did make good yokes’?  Was he subtly playing on their knowledge of his background?”[1]  We can ask—how did Jesus’ early life shape the teacher he became and the lessons he taught?

Jesus didn’t get baptized by John the Baptist and set off on his own until he was 30.  Some call the time between the story we can read in Luke’s Gospel about Jesus as a twelve-year-old in the Temple to the time we find Jesus in the wilderness with John his “Hidden Life.”  Now, for those of us who are a little older, think about the years of your life from the age of 12 to the age of 30.  Anything important happen in those 18 years?

It’s a formative time, right?!  People may discover romantic partners.  People may get married or have children.  People may finish advanced degrees.  Begin their careers in one’s chosen field.  Move to completely new places.  People often begin living their own lives and becoming their own person (however that may look).  And here’s the thing, we don’t know what Jesus was up to during those incredibly important years of his life. 

Scholars use history, archeology, biblical geography, and other fields of study to try to piece together what Jesus’ life would have been like during his “Hidden Life”—Jesus’ adolescence into younger adulthood.  We can ask what it was like in Nazareth.  We know that daily existence was difficult because according to Historical Jesus Scholars like John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed, “Most skeletal remains predictably show iron and protein deficiencies, and most had severe arthritis.  A case of the flu, a bad cold, or an abscessed tooth could kill.  Life expectancy, for the luckier half that survived childhood, was somewhere in the thirties.  Those reaching fifty or sixty were rare.”[2]  Though we also know from excavating the small stone dwellings in Nazareth that people lived and worked close together.  There must have been a sense of belonging to your family and village—a deep sense of community. 

Bearing all of this in mind, we turn to the Gospel of Matthew and hear Jesus teach: “You are the salt of the earth.  But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again?  It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet.”[3]  The followers of Jesus really were “the salt of the earth” in the way we use the phrase today.  Jesus was from a backwater town not even mentioned in the Old Testament and that background shaped him.

Even today being “salt of the earth” means that you are a good, trustworthy person who is down to earth and doesn’t put on airs.  This metaphor also deals with Christian discipleship and the part we play as children of God.  Telling the disciples that they are the salt of the earth suggests that they can bring the goodness and flavor out of others.  For cooks among us, you’ve probably heard the cooking instruction to “salt to taste.”  Salt as a seasoning can reduce bitterness and brings out the flavor of other, more subtle ingredients.  When used correctly, salt may be the only ingredient you need to add to a dish, and suddenly it tastes fabulous!

In Jesus’ day and age, salt preserved food and made it last longer.  Our modern word “salary” comes from the word “salt.”  Some workers (including Roman soldiers) may have been partly paid for their labor in salt.  Don’t get any ideas!  Other folks relate that soldiers were given a special sum of money to then go buy salt.  Either way, salt was vital to ancient people and Jesus tells us that we are to be the salt of the earth and we must keep our saltiness intact.  Though think about it, you and I can bring out good flavors today.  We can reduce bitterness and help balance the world.[4]  In tumultuous, uncertain times like these it can be easy to get bitter.  Jesus calling us to be the salt of the earth gives us courage. 

Jesus also tells us: “You are the light of the world.  A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket.  Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father [God] who is in heaven.”[5] 

Professor Marcia Riggs reflects on Jesus’ words by saying so beautifully that, “Light enables us to see things and is a kind of energy that gives things color, helps vegetation to grow, provides solar power for electricity, and can be focused for specific uses, such as a laser.  Like light, the disciples as a gathered community have the overarching purpose of being the mirror that refracts God’s light so that all peoples and nations can know of God’s justice and mercy.”[6]  When we work together in a gathered community of Christians, we can engage our community much better than we can on our own.  Jesus calls us to be salt and light, working individually and collectively to spread God’s love.

These verses in the Sermon on the Mount are also a challenge to put ourselves out there.  What’s the point of salt that doesn’t taste salty anymore?  What’s the point of hiding a light underneath a basket so you can’t even see its rays or be warmed by them?  Sometimes you gotta be salty.  Sometimes you gotta shine your light.  Jesus is telling us today as his disciples to be salt and light—salty for all to experience and shining for all to see.  We can bring out some good flavors in the world and counter bitterness and despair.  We can shine light on a broken world, drawing people to the radiance of God among us. 

At the end of the day, when we are truly grounded in God and get courage from the relationship we have with Jesus—there’s no telling what challenges we can face head on.  Being salt and light isn’t about our own personal satisfaction.  Being salt and light is about working individually and together to fulfill the law as Jesus commands.  Working side by side to love God with our entire beings and love our neighbors and love ourselves.  So don’t be afraid to be a little bit salty and shine your light.  Let it shine!  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] James Martin, SJ, Jesus: A Pilgrimage, 90.
[2] John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed as quoted by James Martin, SJ in Jesus: A Pilgrimage, 77.
[3] Matthew 5:13, CEB.
[4] Marcia Y. Riggs, “Theological Perspective” on Matthew 5:13-20 in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1, 332.
[5] Matthew 5:14-16.
[6] Riggs, “Theological Perspective” on Matthew 5:13-20 in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, 332-334.

Photo by Jason Tuinstra on Unsplash