Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

“You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”

Edward Ruscha. Miracle, from Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Sourced from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. Original source.

February 5, 2017

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Commentary on Matthew 5:13-20

“You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”

These are great and holy attributes and promises of discipleship. But Jesus does not stop there. With this blessing comes responsibility.

The responsibilities of discipleship

It’s one thing to know and to claim your identity. It’s another thing entirely to live it. But, we have to. Why? For the sake of the kingdom of heaven coming to pass here and now and not just in our future.

Think back to the passage from last week and the purpose of the Sermon on the Mount. To learn is to put information into action. The disciples have learned who they are. Now, they need to know what difference this makes.

Knowledge without action as an impediment to the implementation of the Kingdom of Heaven might be a way to imagine the focus of this portion of Jesus’ sermon. Or, better yet, knowledge without a purpose. All too often this is what our sermons sound like, our churches sound like, our discipleship sounds like. We have a lot of information about Jesus, about God, about the Holy Spirit to share, but that’s as far as it goes. We tend to amass information for information’s sake and not for the sake of the difference it might actually make for another. In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds us that knowledge about God cannot exist as simply knowledge. Knowledge about God, theology, if you will, is God’s very presence in the world. It is not enough to know about God. As disciples, we have to be the activity of God in the world. We are called to live out our identity as salt and light.

No knowledge without action

A sermon on this portion of the Sermon on the Mount might explore this dimension of our human lives, particularly, this aspect of our human brokenness. It is knowledge without action that perpetuates existence of racism in our world. It is knowledge without action that contributes to our silence about sexism. It is knowledge without action that continues to oppress the poor, to ostracize the marginalized, to overlook the hungry.

A sermon on this portion of the Sermon on the Mount might also ask how this is related to the brokenness of the church: how our churches spend our efforts on doctrinal statements rather than how to live our beliefs in our lives; how our churches spend money on social statements rather than activism; how our churches spend time on determining correct theology rather than inviting constructive theology that might actually get embodied in believers, that might encourage believers to believe they are also theologians, that might invite them to think theologically rather than simply have a theology.

True righteousness

In other words, a sermon on this portion of the Sermon on the Mount will tell the truth about our default setting which leans toward comfort, conformity, and complacency when what Jesus really needs from us is to be the salt and the light—the salt that just might sting and the light that just might expose what we do not want to see.

What Jesus needs from us, evidently, is a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. “No!” we might say, “Jesus didn’t really mean that.” But what if Jesus did? What if Jesus’ intention was for us as disciples to imagine and live into a righteousness that makes the kingdom of heaven possible? If this is true, no wonder Jesus tells this to his disciples from the beginning. They will need the rest of the Gospel to make sense of and embrace such a request.

It is helpful at this point to compare the Beatitudes in Luke and Matthew. Luke’s version is very much about Luke’s Christology and encapsulates Luke’s portrait of Jesus—blessed are the poor. Period. Blessed are those who hunger. Period. No quantifiers or qualifiers. The same is true for Matthew. Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes is a summary of Jesus according to Matthew. For Matthew, at stake is action for the sake of certain commitments to and understandings of God’s identity. God is righteous. God sees the poor in spirit. Discipleship is not just a certain way of being in the world, but an ultimate way of being in the world. Matthew has high standards for discipleship. The sooner we realize this, the better.

Somebody has to set the standards. Not that the other Gospels don’t. It’s just different for Matthew. On the front end of preaching Matthew, the preacher has to come to grips with the Gospel writer’s expectations. Hungering and thirsting for righteousness is no easy feat. There is an expectation for a certain excellence in faith, a requested resilience in belief, a mandate for decidedly determined disciples that very well might trouble the faint in heart.

This is the challenge of Matthew, and we should probably get used to it now rather than later. It won’t do us much good to delay the inevitable. Learning and embodying the demands of discipleship are best known up front. Because in the end, they very well may end up bringing about the culmination of Matthew’s vision.