Commentary on Matthew 5:13-20
Jesus’ teaching on salt and light is likely very familiar to you as preacher, as well as to your listeners.
This commentary will address only verses 13-16, offering four suggestions to explore for preaching this text.
Notice the present tense as Jesus tells his followers they are salt and light now, not in some distant future. Jesus’ teaching is not only about what the Kingdom of God is, but centrally about who we are, what our new lives in this new realm look like — tasty and lit up.
Those who follow Jesus don’t merely sit back and receive abundant life, or simply tell others about what a great abundant life we have. Jesus is talking here about a life that makes a difference for others in the world.
We are the tastiness that adds salt to lives around us. We are light that makes plain the justice way of the kingdom of God. Jesus says we must be tasty and lit up in order to make a difference for God in the world. Neither salt nor light exists for themselves. They only fulfill their purpose when used, poured out.
In preaching, one suggestion is to make vivid the power of these two elements we take for granted. Salt and light were both precious commodities in Jesus’ time. Both sustain life. Neither can be produced easily on one’s own. They are gifts of creation that require careful ingenuity to access and conserve. And they make all the difference!
Living in a post-Edisonian world, we are almost never at the mercy of wherever the sun happens to be. We live in illusory control of light, able to create it with the flick of a switch. For most of human history this has not been so.
The season of Epiphany is a great time to play with light in worship to remind us of its power and of our dependence on it. You can use sanctuary lighting to illustrate light and dark, distribute flashlights for sanctuary-wide experiments, or set up a lamp and cover it with a big laundry basket. Demonstrate the difference that light makes to help convey the power of Jesus’ point.
The “bushel” Jesus mentions here is not a unit of measurement as listeners may assume. Rather, Jesus refers to a vessel big enough to cover a lamp. He describes a light not snuffed out but covered up. The light is not extinguished. It is rendered ineffective.
As a preacher, think about the bushels that cover your congregation’s light. What are they? Maybe the bushel is an inferiority complex, a lack of confidence that comes from chronically comparing ourselves to the big church across town or to the good, old days when our church was full of children and youth. The inferiority bushel blocks out God’s light.
Or perhaps the bushel is the self-absorption of internal conflicts. While conflict is an expected part of any human organization, when conflict becomes an excuse for unproductive institutional self-absorption, then it is a bushel that prevents our light from shining.
Or perhaps the bushel is the fantasy church in our minds. This sort of bushel is seductive because it seems so positive and feels so good. Such holy longing for an imagined future can indeed fuel us. However, it is equally likely that we indulge in lots of incantational speech without any concrete action or effort in the present. Our church fantasies can leave us unable to build a common life with the real people around us. Magical thinking covers our light.
Jesus gives the central insight that lights don’t magically end up underneath bushels. The only way for our light to be covered is if we put a bushel over it. We can hear the incredulous tone in Jesus voice, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel” (verse 15). Ridiculous! Jesus is clear: we are not victims inevitably doomed to being distracted and drained by the bushels of inferiority or self-absorption or fantasy. Bushels can only block out the light when we put them there.
Unfortunately, for some congregations, our bushels become our very identity. Not only do we put the bushels over our light, we cling to them for dear life, unwilling to let them go. Jesus calls us out on this: no one who follows Jesus gives over energy, time, and power to the things that block the light. We must unmask these bushels for the human constructions they are, disarming their power. For ours is the “light of all people. This light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:4-5). So “let your light shine before others” (verse 16).
This passage from Matthew presents a great opportunity to preach about evangelism. The E-word has fallen out of use in many circles, and you may need to experiment with vocabulary to connect with your context. At its root, evangelism is “good news-ism.” Good news-ism is a way of life, tasty and lit up for a world stumbling in darkness. Too many are captive to the lie that they are not Christian enough or sober enough or church-going enough or know the Bible enough to be claimed by God.
The good news is that Jesus has already opened the Kingdom of God to everyone, regardless of who is righteous or deserving. Bushel-free, our lives shine with good news of Jesus, welcoming the lost from death to life, from shame to forgiveness, from wandering in an alien land to coming home to God’s very life.
As Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message translation of Matthew 5:15-16, “Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.” So live the tasty, lit-up life!