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Matthew 5:13-20 1
13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. 14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. 17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Background 2

In these verses, Jesus ties “salt” and “earth” together. Generally we refer to the “earth’s salt” as something good. It comes from the earth.  The earth can be viewed as a the source of seasoning (cf. Job 6:6), purifier (cf. 2 Kings 2:19-23), and preservative. The most important attribute about salt is that it is not an element useful to itself. Salt’s value comes in its application on other things. The followers of Jesus are being called to exist for others. Yet, Jesus issues a warning. Salt may become (literally) “foolish” (nothing more than a useless pile), losing its taste or value.

In the same way, light functions in order to allow humans to see. During Jesus’ time, when it was nightfall, it was dark. r: in darkness, “we grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes” (Isaiah 59:10).] Jesus uses the example of light not only to allow others to see whatever they wish but also for others to witness the acts of justice that Jesus’ followers perform. Beyond that, it is meant to allow others to recognize the cause of these actions, our God.

Jesus’ emphasis about “salt” and “light” relate to the functions of His faithful followers in the world, and so does His emphasis on the law and doing good. In this sermon, Jesus is not desiring to end the law (verse 5:17). To “abolish” (kataluo) something is usually to tear it apart, to loosen it; it is the opposite of “building up” (oikodomeo). In Matthew’s Gospel, the verb is commonly used in reference to the temple (cf. Matthew 24:2; 26:61; 27:40). What is important is that Jesus does not say that He has come to “build up” the law but rather to “fulfill” it. “Jesus chooses to “fulfill” the law in the sense by interpreting its meaning. When Jesus says He will not abolish, He clearly does not mean He will not re-interpret the law.

Another point of the sermon is to point out how difficult this new obedience actually is to follow (verse 5:20). When we think of the Pharisees, if the first thought that comes to mind is “hypocrites” or “self-righteous/sanctimonious person” (from the first definition given in the Webster’s Online Dictionary), then Jesus’ comparison is not a challenge at all. Rather, we must recognize the positive influence of Pharisees to the Jewish community.

Who were the Pharisees? What type of influence did they have on the population? They shared many basic beliefs with Jesus. Both believed that the Law should be applied to all areas of life. One distinction was that the Pharisees believed in a two-fold law: written and oral. Jesus apparently did not value the “oral law” (cf. Matthew 15:1-20). Both believed in the general resurrection, future rewards and punishments, and the activity of angels and demons in the world. Jesus’ followers must be more committed to God’s justice in the world than these prominent leaders.

Though the thrust of 5:13-20 is on the actions of this “higher righteousness” that a light may make clear (e.g., 5:16), the intent behind anyone’s actions is more important (cf. 5:21-22, 27-8, 38-9, 43-4; 7:12!). Who are ‘salt’ of the earth? They are the humble, the ones who mourn, the meek, and those who thirst after doing what is right in the world. Who are ‘light’? They are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who receive abuse for standing up for what is right.

Items for Discussion

  • What does it mean to be salty in today’s society?
  • Can you think of some examples of how people are “salty?”
  • Can you give more examples of how the Christian experience sheds light onto the world?
  • If a Christian loses their saltiness, can they get it back? How?
  • What do you think about Jesus’s comparative statement in verse 20? Is this a help?

Discussion Challenge

  • If the Church is about “flavoring life” and “letting the world see God,” where should its priorities be?

Notes:

  1. NIV New International Version Translations
  2. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=842
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