Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

 A command to the light itself

puddle of wet snow and salts reflecting bright light
Photo by iiievgeniy on iStock.

February 5, 2023

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Commentary on Matthew 5:13-20

As the first major piece of teaching within the Sermon on the Mount after the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12), Jesus’ teaching about salt and light (5:13-16) and his explanation about his teachings in relation to the law (5:17-20) serve as helpful orienting pieces to the whole of the Sermon on the Mount. 

Teaching a community

Unlike so many other languages, including the Greek in which this text is written, English is impoverished for its lack of differentiation between the singular and plural second person “you.” It is important to note, though, that 5:13-16 is addressed to a plural audience (or, in colloquial terms, “y’all”). That is, no one individual embodies salt or light. Rather, the full community is needed to exemplify that which most resembles the salt and light of which Jesus speaks.

Furthermore, these metaphors themselves bespeak a communal reality. That is, salt is most effective in its work when it is used with other elements. In culinary matters, salt works in tandem with other food to bring out the best flavor (see also Job 6:6). For many sacrifices described in the Hebrew Bible, salt accompanies the sacrificed meat or food (see also Leviticus 2:13; Ezra 6:9; 7:22; Ezekiel 43:23-24).

As a metaphor, light also functions somewhat communally. That is, in the absence of anything else, light serves little function. Rather, for light to be the most effective, it must emerge within a poorly illuminated environment to brighten that which already exists so that it may be perceived by others in that space. As this text is read during the season of Epiphany, it may be worth recalling the words from Isaiah that opened this liturgical season: “Arise, shine; for your light has come” (Isaiah 60:1).

A study in contrasts

Matthew 5:13-16 is especially notable for the contrast that it poses to material later in Matthew 6:1-4. In that later text, Jesus will warn about the public practice of one’s “righteousness” (6:1). Here, though, Jesus encourages his audience to let their good works be seen by others (5:16). Furthermore, he suggests that personal righteousness must be of the highest level (5:20). How then might this seeming contradiction within the Sermon be understood? 

One possibility for understanding this seeming contradiction is to examine the parts of this text that are descriptive versus the parts of the text that are prescriptive. That is, Jesus begins this series of instructions by indicating to his audience that they are the salt of the earth (5:13) and the light of the world (5:14). The verbs here are indicative. That is, they indicate an existing condition; they don’t prescribe it. 

The only imperative in this text is in verse 16. Even here, though, the command that is given is not actually a command to Jesus’ human audience. Rather, the text includes a grammatical form that does not clearly exist in English: a third-person imperative. This means that what is translated in the NRSV as “Let your light shine” is not actually a command to the human audiences of this imperative. Rather, it is a command to the light itself. This is significant because it means that the human audience of 5:13-16 is not being issued explicit instructions about how they are to behave. Instead, that which comprises the human essence already (for example, “light”) is simply instructed to be made even more manifest than what it already is. It is not for humans to accomplish any particular work. Humans are simply to allow their core essence to be made more evident. 

Thus, the seeming contrast between 5:13-16 and 6:1-4 does not actually present the contradiction that it might seem to pose on the surface. Where 6:1-4 is cautioning against the performative enacting of particular actions intended to capture the attention of others, 5:13-16 is instead celebrating the ways in which humans most authentically reflect that which already comprises their essence.

Jesus and the Law

The text shifts somewhat in Matthew 5:17 from the theme of celebrating the manifestation of human characteristics within existing communities to the topic of how Jesus’s instruction relates to communities of old. Though this might at first seem like an odd way in which to describe Jesus’s teachings about the law in 5:17-20, it is nonetheless the case that the law serves as a thread connecting past and present.

The importance of Jesus’ indication in Matthew 5:17-20 about how he perceives his teaching in relation to the Mosaic law cannot be minimized. That is, while the so-called “antitheses” in 5:21-48 could seem to give the impression that Jesus is overturning or otherwise modifying the law, his statements in 5:17-20 should be understood as the foundation upon which all of his subsequent instruction is based. 

Audiences of this text for today would do well to remember that Jesus preaches as a teacher who is steeped within the Jewish tradition and Jewish faith. That is, Jesus should not be understood as offering something that supersedes the law. Instead, his teaching should be viewed as that of one who holds the law in the greatest respect. 

For Christian preachers who stand in the long shadow of Jesus in bringing the good news to audiences today, care is warranted in the approach to this text. That is, the Christian preacher who emulates Jesus fundamentally imitates one who upheld and celebrated the Jewish faith. Jesus’ teachings, then, are best understood as those of a Jewish reformer, not as those of one who is attempting to denigrate and displace an “outdated” religious system.

The (synchronic) communal nature of Jesus’ teachings in 5:13-16 undergird the (diachronic) communal nature of his teachings in 5:17-20. That is, as Jesus upholds the importance of the law, he simultaneously upholds the historical connection between his own time and Moses’. This communal connection across time offers an important example for preachers today. That is, Christian preachers would do well to follow Jesus’ example of reaching into the faith’s history to find modern meaning. “Relevance,” as Jesus demonstrates, need not be measured by historical proximity. Rather, the “relevant” preacher can emerge as most effective in their ministry when they both teach and perform the very actions that the ancient law demands (5:19).