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Thursday, February 6, 2014

Some Thoughts and Questions about Salt & Light and the Fulfillment of the Law

I’m working through some of my thoughts and questions about this week’s Lectionary reading from Matthew 5: 13 – 20 (Epiphany 5A).  Sometimes writing them out helps me progress through them and to develop them into a coherent and cogent sermon for Sunday.

You are the salt of the earth.”
It must be conceded that this image makes no sense.  Salt does not lose its flavor; neither can it have its flavor restored.  Some salts are necessary to make the ground fertile – but over-salination destroys the soil.  The Anchor Bible’s translation is helpful in this matter: “You are the earth’s salt.  If the salt is of low grade, then how can it be rectified?  It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trodden underfoot.”  The translators explain, “There is no conceivable manner in which salt can be re-salted once it has been diluted.  It is the earth itself which is in need of attention.  But if salt is of poor quality, of low grade, then the earth itself will suffer loss (Albright, 54 – 55).”[i]  

… a city on a hill cannot be hidden…”
 This little phrase tends to get lost in between the Salt and the Light.  Perhaps that’s because it receives no elaboration in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ words.  The Salt image is explained (sort of…) and the Light image receives more attention, but the city on the hill is the forgotten middle child in this series of images.

“so how stands the city on this winter’s night?
A city on the hill, so they said…”

- Bedlam Bridge – Midnight Oil

“…that they may see your good deeds…” 
Matthew seems to contradict himself just a bit later when he records Jesus saying, “…when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets….do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret…” (Matthew 6: 2 – 4)

So, do we do our good deeds so that people will see them or not?  There is a difference between the two examples.  In the first the intent is that people will praise God for the good we do, and in the second the warning is against letting people praise us for the good we do.  It’s a fine line of difference.  How do we walk that tightrope without falling off?

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets…”
I’ve heard this passage used to explain the continued relevance of OT laws to the Christian believer, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard it used to discuss the continued relevance of the Prophets.  – This might be because when Matthew repeats  the phrase just a bit later, the prophets seem to drop out of Jesus’ words:  “…not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen will disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

Why then do the prophets disappear?

Anyone who breaks (or in some translations –sets aside-) one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven…”
This isn’t quite the threat of hellfire and damnation that I’ve always heard it to be.  Look at it again.  Those who break (or set aside) the commandments of torah and teach others to do the same still seem to be within the kingdom of heaven, though considered the least of its citizens.  Er… what? 

Albright, W.F., C.S. Mann, Matthew: Introduction, Translation, and Notes Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City, NY, 1971.  


  1. Religious acts like giving alms, praying, and fasting (in Mt. 6:1-18) are widely admired by various religions, and so can be done in order to gain admiration from others. The good works of 5:16 follow Jesus' teaching about "beatitudes," like being meek/gentle (in a world that glorifies violence, especially on a national and international level), being merciful (even to outsiders that most people despise), and being persecuted for speaking like the prophets (persecuted rather than admired due to prophetic words against rich and powerful leaders). The greedy, violent, and proud kingdoms of earth do not consider such works to be good and will not glorify those who do them.

    Speaking of prophets, while 5:18 doesn't mention prophets, it is all about the future when "everything is accomplished/fulfilled," the same time as "when heaven and earth pass away" (at the beginning of 5:18). The law can prophesy about future events as well as the prophets (e.g. Mt. 11:13); and the law here could be "shorthand" for the "law and prophets" of 5:17. What is envisioned are events in the future, now "laws." All the smallest details of scripture that prophesy the future and final end of history will thus be fulfilled in the end.

    If 5:18 is about what events, not what laws, will come to pass in the future, the commands of 5:19 might not be about the commands of torah, but rather the commands of Christ (like those in 5:21-48). Already Jesus has commanded his disciples to let their light shine before men (which will fulfill their being the light of the world). Jesus' focus in 5:1-16 is his new kingdom of disciples (that will spread throughout the world). Yet his disciples--throughout this Gospel, especially see Mt. 18:1f.--will remain focused on a new kingdom of Israel where they will be the greatest, ruling with Jesus. Jesus' command to let their light shine before men (the world) is the least of their concerns. Yet this command will be the climax of this Gospel (the great commission of 28:19-20, which includes going to all nations and teaching new disciples to do "everything" Jesus commanded). Jesus continually warns his disciples that if they want to become great in his kingdom, they must humble themselves and serve others (even Gentiles); otherwise, they will be considered the least in his kingdom.

  2. I like the distinction between religious good deeds (prayer, fasting, alms) and beatitude good works (humility, mercy, suffering persecution).



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