Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

The Gospel of Matthew portrays Jesus as the classic authoritative teacher.

February 6, 2011

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Commentary on Matthew 5:13-20

The Gospel of Matthew portrays Jesus as the classic authoritative teacher.

The ‘Sermon on the Mount’ is Jesus’ masterpiece.  In it, readers can find most of the significant themes relevant to the remainder of Matthew’s story about Jesus.  As Jesus begins, the audience is apparently his closest disciples (5:1); when he ends, the audience is much broader (7:28). The primary theme of the sermon is righteousness or justice (dikaiosune); the content that follows will give the specifics.  Jesus’ teaching opens with the beatitudes (5:3-11).  They point out God’s favor toward humanity rather than God’s demand.  They are not the expected cultural categories: people who mourn are recognized favorably.  Developing an active strategy in peacemaking is hardly popular in first-century life under Rome. The sermon closes with God’s demand to obey Jesus’ words (7:24-29), that is, the new Torah.  God grants favor (salvation), but demands the very lives of the ones who follow.

Matthew 5:13-16
In the Gospel narratives, Jesus’ short pithy saying about “salt” appears in different contexts in each Gospel (cf. Matt 5:13; Mark 9:50; Luke 14:34). In each instance, salt is a common image Jesus used for painting a picture of how he hoped his followers would act and be in the world.

The link between “salt” and “earth” is not so clear.  The genitive construction may refer to the “earth’s salt,” to be used for its (i.e., the earth’s) good. It could also refer to the salt that comes from the earth; that is, the earth is the source of this seasoning (cf. Job 6:6), purifier (cf. 2 Kings 2:19-23), and preservative.  The last function makes the most sense.  Whatever function Jesus had in mind, in all cases salt is not an element useful to itself.  Its value comes in its application on other things.  So, likewise the followers of Jesus are called to exist for others.  Yet, Jesus warns that salt may become (literally) “foolish” (moraine), that is, losing its taste or value. 

In the same way, light functions in order to allow humans to see.  [In the contemporary Western/Northern world, it is difficult to imagine a world without light.  When it was nightfall, in the ancient world, it was dark: in darkness, “we grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes” (Isaiah 59:10).] In Jesus’ usage, the light is not simply to allow others to see whatever they wish but it is for others to witness the acts of justice that Jesus’ followers perform.  Beyond that, it allows the audience to recognize the cause of these actions, the God of heaven. 

The images of “salt” and “light” evoke the imagination of Jesus’ listeners and may represent more than one meaning.  Jesus gives them more specific substance in what follows.
Matthew 5:17-20
Just as “salt” and “light” relate to the functions of Jesus’ faithful followers in the world, so Jesus’ emphasis on the law is about doing good.  In this sermon, Jesus explores the meaning of the law for his contemporary reality, not desiring for its discontinuation (cf. 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). Unlike the Law, Jesus exclaims about the temple, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (24:2). The Common English Bible is even more descriptive: “Everything will be demolished.” Jesus claims that this was not his intention with respect to the Law.

But Jesus does not say that he has come to “build up” the law but rather to “fulfill” it.  “To fulfill” (pleroo) is frequently understood as “bringing something to an end” or “to complete (something)” but that does not quite fit the immediate context.  Jesus, especially Matthew’s Jesus, was a law-abiding Jew.  But he chooses to “fulfill” the law in the sense of interpreting their meaning for contemporary practice. 

What laws was he talking about? When Jesus says he will not abolish, he clearly does not mean he will not re-interpret:  “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times … but I say to you.”

One main thrust of the sermon is to point out how difficult this new obedience is: “…your righteousness should exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees” (5:20).  Jesus’ comparison is illogical if interpreters maintain traditional, negative descriptions of the scribes and the Pharisees.  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 over the broader first-century 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 negotiating the theological tension of divine providence and human free will.  Both believed in the general resurrection, future rewards and punishments, and the activity of angels and demons in the world.  According to Josephus, the first-century historian and Pharisee himself, the Pharisees “cultivate harmonious relations with the community” (War.II.166) and receive respect from the community because of their virtuous lives (Ant.XVIII.15). Jesus’ followers must be more committed to God’s justice in the world than these prominent leaders.

Summary for Preaching
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 the action is equally (more?) important (cf. 5:21-22, 27-8, 38-9, 43-4; 7:12!).  Interpreters spend a lot of time and effort–as I do here–trying to figure out Jesus’ meaning of the images of salt and light.  More important is the context of those images for Jesus. 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.