(A Rock in a Hard Place)
Salt and Light
The personal characteristics Jesus has extolled in the Beatitudes are so remarkable that we might easily think they belong only to special, rare, holy people whose lives are devoted to a separate religious calling. It is significant, therefore, that his audience is now addressed directly, in a way that indicates both how we are separate ourselves from the world and how we rightly belong to it.
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 by men.
This speaks of the way in which a follower of Christ is to live in the world. We Christians have a tendency to want to cluster together, pushing the world out of our sight; but salt is used both to cure and preserve meat, and to provide seasoning for all kinds of foods. Both of these functions only occur when the salt comes “out of the saltshaker” and into contact with something that needs to be salted. This indicates that the “salt of the earth” is only so when in contact with the things of this world. On an individual level, then, we could understand this passage to tell us that “a little goes a long way”; that it only takes one Christian, or a few, when actively engaged with the world, to improve the quality, the goodness, even the life-expectancy of the secular world. A closer look, however, reminds us that the “You” in this saying is in the plural; that the saltiness of Christ’s followers lies in their impact as a community on the world.
You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 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. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
Often the people of God are tempted to think that because not many of you [are] wise by human standards; not many [are] influential; not many [are] of noble birth (1 Cor. 1:26), that our influence in the world is limited, and certainly less than the influence of the political figures we see spoken of daily in the media, or even than the media figures themselves. Yet light is what makes things visible. It is not by looking at a candle, or a light bulb, or the Sun that we see clearly, but by looking at the world in the light such a source provides. In the same way, your influence as a Christian may be greatest not when you call attention to yourself, but when the quality of your behavior illuminates the situation which exists in the world. If we let our light shine, it will not be so that people can admire our saintliness – a motivation Jesus warns us against in the opening verses of Chapter 6 – but to draw attention to God’s love and compassion for the people we are serving in God’s name. Jesus, by doing what he did out in the world instead of at the synagogue or in the Temple, no doubt felt vulnerable to the accusation that he was trying to do away with established religion, because the bulk of religious activity took place in the synagogue or at the temple or in some religious setting. And since Jesus didn’t do most of his work in those religious settings, he was vulnerable to an accusation that would say, “You’re trying to abolish everything we’ve ever learned.” Anticipating such thoughts, he presents in Matthew 5:17-48 a detailed response to such a challenge.
How to Fulfill the Law
Or, Seven Ways to be More Righteous Than the Pharisees:
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. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of the pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same 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. 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.
How can we understand this declaration? Isn’t the gospel of Christ, especially in the form it was later brought to the Gentiles by Paul, entirely unrelated to the minutiae of Jewish law, or indeed to legalism of any kind? Doesn’t Paul go to great lengths to explain that we are no longer under the law, but under grace (Romans 6:14)? Is this saying of Jesus made obsolete by the teaching of the apostles? Or if there is agreement, where can we find it? It will help us if we look at this passage in the light of other statements Jesus made concerning the Law, especially concerning the way in which the fulfillment of the Law is spoken of. The most significant of these is, in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the law and the Prophets (Matthew 7:12). Elsewhere, referring to the great commandment to love God (Deuteronomy 6:5), and the second, which is like it, to love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18), he says, All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments (Matthew 22:40). Thus we can understand this insistence on fulfilling the law rather than abolishing it in light of a unitary understanding of what the law is, namely that none of the minutiae of the law stands on its own as an arbitrary requirement, but rather that each individual precept “hangs” on the command to love. Therefore, a person whose life is motivated by love for God and whose daily walk is characterized by love for neighbor, is in fact going to fulfill the law better than the Pharisees, who strove to know and remember each command for its own sake, but who neglected, as Jesus says in Luke 11:42, the weightier matters of the law, such as justice, mercy, and the love of God. The one who remembers these things will be found to have neglected nothing essential. Paul also confirms this understanding of the relation between the Old Testament law and New Testament life, and in nearly the same words
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, Do not murder, and any one who murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment; anyone who insults his brother is answerable to the council; and anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell.
Jesus takes the basis on which we evaluate ourselves away from the realm of external, observable action (what we might call final results), and puts it into the realm of motivation and relationships. Here his teaching is about basic respect for others. In this case, he is showing us that the murderer, someone who actually takes an implement of destruction and destroys another life, is no worse than the person who by word or attitude discounts another life1 The one who calls another person worthless is in danger of the fire of hell. Why is that? It’s because when we tell someone that he or she is worthless, we have spoken against God, in whose image that person has been made. We have committed blasphemy and an act of unbelief. I John 4:20 makes this connection explicit. If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And James addresses the issue of insult and slander as follows: With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.
Therefore if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar, and go, and be reconciled to your brother, then come and offer your gift.
Jesus is setting a standard for relationships. It’s interesting that all of his teachings in this chapter have less to do with our spiritual exercises before God than they do with our relationships with other people. Jesus is big on relationships with other people.
Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
In this second illustration, we are faced with what might happen if such an initiative has not been taken and the offended party has come looking for us. Even now, says Jesus, deal with the matter on a personal level, so the relationship can be healed. More amazing yet is the realization that Jesus does not even address the question of whether the lawsuit is justified. Communication is always better than condemnation, and dialogue is more productive than uncompromising enmity. We are still talking about Jesus’ desire to help us escape the inevitable judgment that must come to us if we allow ourselves to entertain murder in our own hearts. It is abundantly clear that Jesus wants his own people to play the role of reconcilers, even in cases when they themselves are parties, rightly or wrongly, to the conflict. Sometimes this involves a willingness to give up our insistence on being right. Paul found the Corinthian believers involved in lawsuits against one another, and having learned from the Spirit of Christ the same sort of lesson taught here, he was appalled (I Corinthians 6:7): Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? For Paul as for Jesus, it is more important as witnesses to the truth of God that we be willing to be reconciled with our adversaries, than that we establish the correctness of our own position. Perhaps this is the sort of thing the writer of Proverbs had in mind when he included the saying, When a man’s ways are pleasing to the LORD, he makes even his enemies live at peace with him (Proverbs 16:7) – almost the only mention of the relationship between a man and his enemies offered in that Old Testament book of wisdom.
You have heard that it was said, “Do not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
Once again, the intention is as good as the deed. We are to surpass those Pharisees and teachers of the law by keeping a closer watch on ourselves than we do on those around us. Our critical, judgmental eye is to look inward at the desires of our own heart, not outward at the behavior of others. There’s a lot of mileage to be had in being a moral watchdog on the world; but Jesus would rather that we be watchdogs on ourselves.
It has been said, “Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.” But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.
The admonition against divorce needs to be understood in light of a cultural background which gave a man the right to divorce his wife simply on his say-so; and a divorced woman meant a woman who had no means of support, no livelihood, no ability to survive. The certificate of divorce provided a minimal safeguard protecting women from such disaster on the strength of a man’s whim; but as he does later with respect to laws concerning revenge, Jesus sees the legal restriction only as a starting point, and insists that real relational issues take precedence over questions of convenience.
Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.” But I tell you, do not swear at all; either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and your “No,” “No;” anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
An oath is a solemn promise, or a vow: a serious commitment that we make. It is an attestation of the truth of what one says, or of one’s intention to be true to what one says. But Jesus is pointing out that you have no ability to make such a serious commitment by calling in any higher authority than yourself. The taking of an oath implies that there are certain special occasions when we are more truthful, more to be trusted, than usual. Our religious tendencies would tend to separate some things out as special events, but he is saying our whole life consists of special events. Our entire experience as human beings is a religious experience in the sense of being related to God. There is no particular promise that is more holy than another, no particular way of promising that is more binding than another. Everything we do and say is said and done in the sight of God. Theologians sometimes call this “secularization:” taking the realm of the religious and putting it back in the world where it belongs. We can also call it sanctification: dedicating every detail of our life to God.
- Here it comes. This one is going to get me pegged as a liberal for sure. So which do we do (as I imagine a famous talk radio host intoning in mock dialogue) – let all the murderers out of prison, or pass laws to make insults punishable by hard time? Brother, for your sake I’d let the crooks go free. [↩]