Matthew 5:13–16 (NLT)
“You are the salt of the earth…” “You are the light of the world…” (Matt. 5:13a, 14a)
In Matthew 5:13-16, Jesus continues teaching about life in the Kingdom of God. This is the second passage in the Sermon on the Mount. In the first passage, known as the Beatitudes, Jesus gave us lifestyle and character of a follower of Jesus.
In this passage, Jesus uses the metaphors of salt and light. “You are the salt of the earth.” In the ancient world, salt was a valuable commodity. In fact, Roman soldiers received salt as part of their payment, their salarium from which we get our word salary. Salt is one of the oldest and most ubiquitous food seasonings. Salt was useful as a condiment as it is today, but also useful as a food preservative. In the Jewish religion, salt was also used for cleansing rituals. In Leviticus, salt represents the relationship between God and Israel in the grain offering. (Lev. 2:13) Salt is a mineral that is essential for life. And saltiness is one of the basic human tastes. In fact, salt was so important to the economy of the ancient world that it was used as a medium of exchange throughout the Ancient Near East. It is likely that Jesus does not have one of these particular properties in mind, but rather saltiness in general.
How can salt lose its saltiness? In our modern society, we are used to pure salt, but in the ancient world, pure salt was not so easy to come by. Perhaps Jesus had in mind, impure salty rock which was used as a preservative could have the salt leached out of it after a period of time and then it was good for nothing. Whatever the meaning of salt losing its saltiness, the next statement is clear. Salt that is not salty is worthless and thrown out into the street.
In the next verse, Jesus uses the metaphor of “the light of the world” for this disciples, “like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden.” The light metaphor continues the salt metaphor and takes it one step further.
“Light” is an important theme in Scripture. In John 1, Jesus is “The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness can never extinguish it.” (John 1:5) The physical contrast between the light and the darkness provides a metaphor for the contrast between good and evil, God and the spiritual forces of evil, the Kingdom of God and the world, believers and unbelievers. Jesus later declared that he is “the light of the world.” (John 8:12; 9:5)
Jesus’ life and the Good News of salvation bring light to those in darkness (Matt. 4:15-16). In the same way, his disciples demonstrate the coming of the Kingdom of God and bring light into a world of darkness. Just as a city on a hill cannot be hidden. You can see the city lights from far away.
In the same way, you wouldn’t hide a lamp under a basket. Common sense tells you that you put a lamp up where it can be seen and where it can best shed light to the whole room. In the ANE, the kind of lamp that was used was a small clay pot with a hole at one end, and a hole in the top to fill it. It looks like a small tea pot. The wick would come out of the spout. Since these were very small, they would only give off a modest light. To best use it, one would place it on a lamp stand, so it would give light to everyone in the house.
Jesus’ disciples are called to be the light of the world. We cannot be hidden, because the very nature of the eternal life within us is a living testimony to the darkness around us. Even one candle seems bright in a dark room. Likewise the church is to be like a city set on a hill. I like the way that Eugene Petersen puts it, “God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand – shine!”
The passage ends with an admonition, “In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.” The good deeds of the follower of Christ will draw other people to live similarly and to glorify God.
When we share food with the hungry, we are the light of the world!
When we care for those who are homeless, we are the light of the world!
When we offer companionship to the lonely, we are the light of the world!
When we clothe the poor, we are the light of the world!
When we speak up for justice, we are the light of the world!
When we do such things in a weary world, we are the light of the world!
(Laura Jaquith Bartlett, The Abingdon Worship Annual 2017, Feb. 5, 2017)