Lessons for Life

Matthew 5:13-20    —-  I love to make homemade guacamole. It only takes four main ingredients: avocado, garlic, lime juice and salt. Once we had guests over for dinner and we had guacamole on the table. I was proud to serve my fresh recipe to our friends until I tasted it. I had forgotten the salt! Oh my, what a difference! The flavors were non-existent. It was just mushy green stuff to add color to our tortilla chips. The lack of salt means lack of flavor, un-appetizing, un-appealing. It is the salt that brings the avocado to life.
Naturally occurring salt attracts animals, for all creatures need a certain level of salt and other minerals in our systems. Animal tracks leading to salt licks served as the framework for early human paths and then for roads and even highways in this country. Native American settlements were often created near salt licks, ending up being the locations of some of our cities today. Salt brought animals together, and then the first humans who hunted those animals, and then the humans who pushed the first humans out to create their own “new” communities.
Salt has long been used as a preservative and as a healing agent. We gargle with warm salt water when our throats are sore, we find that cuts and scrapes heal quickly after swimming in the ocean.
Jesus tells his disciples to be the salt of the earth, the ones who bring flavor, life, energy, and healing to the community, to the world. Our job is to elicit goodness on earth. Following the metaphor, we need to be the ones who bring healing, who stand up for peace in the midst of a violent city, who are committed to bringing goodness into the world. We need to be the ones who cause others to gather, to congregate, to unite around the salt lick. When we fail to do so, we have lost our flavor, we have lost our usefulness as a gathering agent or a healing agent. We still use Jesus’ metaphor today to describe anyone who is reliable, trustworthy, basically a good, simple person who does not put on airs or seek recognition for the good that he does. We say, “He is salt of the earth”. He is one who brings life and flavor to the world around him. He attracts others by his natural qualities, but also by his lived values and his chosen actions.
Just in case we didn’t get it with his first metaphor, Jesus offers a second: you are the light of the world. Light enables us to see the shape of things, the colors around us, the faces of our friends or foes. If we are light, we are reflecting God’s light to the world around us. Everyone knows light is not meant to be covered up with a bushel basket, but to shine out into the darkness, bringing change, bringing hope, bringing the love of God. We are to be light bearers, shining the love of God into the world. We collect the overflow of God’s light and pass it around. We do that in our interactions with one another—visiting in the hospital, sharing a meal, taking time to listen patiently even when you have heard the story before. We do that in our interactions with the world around us—caring for our waterways by picking up trash even when you didn’t make it, tutoring children after school, committing to work with diverse individuals or groups on a project to improve some aspect of our communal life.
Sitting on that mountainside, preparing his disciples for ministry in the world, Jesus is clear as a bell: if you are going to be on God’s side, you are going to be active in the world you live in. If you are committing to follow me, it is going to make an impact on the way you live. You will make a difference to your family, to your neighborhood, to your church family, to your city. You will be like salt and light in the world.
Like every good preacher, Jesus shows his listeners how the scriptures are connected to their lives. That is my goal every time I climb into this pulpit—with God’s help, finding a way to connect us all to the message from God, reflecting on how the Word of God impacts our daily lives. Jesus begins here with a statement that assures his listeners, who are steeped in the word of God found in the Torah and in the voices of the prophets, that what he is bringing to them will build on what they already know. We human beings often work better that way. Whether it is mastering a physical skill or internalizing a new intellectual concept, when we start with the familiar and build on it, we are able to adapt and expand and grow in ways that might be more difficult if we completely start fresh with something brand new. Advertisers do that all the time. They take a familiar image or phrase or video clip and adapt it, stretch it, place it in a new setting, so that those who knew it before will make the connection in their minds. Think the little green gecko or the beavers chucking wood. Musicians do it all the time as they improvise on the collection of notes that you might know from one place and then turn them into something new, building out from parts of the original, pulling listeners along into a new experience expanded from a prior experience.
Jesus says he has NOT come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them, to complete them. That is, to bring their purposes to complete expression in everyday life. He says not one iota, which is the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet, will be erased until everything there becomes a reality. He is the fulfillment of the law. His list of makarisms, or beatitudes, which we looked at last week, are built on behaviors and expectations that would have been familiar to a student of the Torah or the words of the prophets. Next week we will dig deeper into the collection of six commands that he describes in the latter half of this chapter of Matthew.
One of the accusations from the powerful was that Jesus was going to destroy all the customs handed down by Moses—a threat to tradition, a fear experienced by anyone who is in a position of power. If Jesus was made out to be one who will remove the laws and customs we are used to following, he becomes a threat to the status quo. When Stephen was arrested in Acts chapter 6, people were rustled up to falsely accuse him of promoting this Jesus of Nazareth who claimed he would dismantle Moses’ laws. The accusations worked—he was given a hearing in front of the council and ended up being stoned for his scathing words against a people who had not lived up to the message of the prophets they said they valued.
We too have made a line between the Jewish laws and our understanding of living under the grace of Jesus Christ. It is true that he brings in a new understanding of how to relate to God. But it is not true that he throws out all of the law and the prophets. We will see next week that he describes the old law as a starting point, and actually intensifies his expectations for those who follow him. You know the old law—well I want you to go deeper, to do more than the minimum expectation. That is a little preview of next week’s sermon….
For today, let us end with this: already at the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus is delineating a different perspective on the law from what the religious authorities espoused. I appreciate the distinction drawn by Edward Van Driel: he suggests that the Pharisees read and practiced the torah from the perspective of a world governed by sin—they understood that you need the torah to keep Israel in line, to maintain her identity in the world of temptations to be like everyone else. But Jesus reads torah in context of the kingdom. Now something new is happening. You still read and practice the torah, but you are coming from a different perspective. Jesus teaches that the reign of God is coming in — actually he is the one who brings in the Kingdom of God. So no longer are we to measure ourselves by human rules but by God’s abundant righteousness or justice.
Despite the divide between his perspective and the perspective of the Pharisees, Jesus actually tells his listeners that they must act with more righteousness than the scribes and the Pharisees, indicating that they already have a high bar of ethical conduct, but he is expecting more. Nowhere does he say it is wrong to practice the law, but he expects more.
Come back next week for the next installment of Life’s lessons from the sermon on the mount! Amen.

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