with Tony W. Cartledge
Teachers: Scroll down for teaching materials.
Salt, Light, and Law
Have you ever had your worldview challenged? From childhood, we generally develop an embedded understanding of how things are. Our cultural biases, levels of aspiration, and general attitudes toward life are formed early and stay late – unless further experiences lead us to reevaluate. That may happen when we move to a different location, go off to college, enter the armed forces, spend time in a different culture, or come face to face with heartache or tragedy. Such things can shift our way of seeing the world.
With his “beatitudes,” Jesus turned traditional ways of thinking upside down, pronouncing blessings on unlikely people. Who would think being poor, grieving, or meek could merit the term “blessed,” which can also be translated as “happy”?
Teachings that follow in the “Sermon on the Mount” also put an interesting twist on common conceptions of righteousness. Jesus knew these would put him at odds with the religious authorities and with the common religious thought of the day, but he had come to teach a new way of righteousness. His teachings were not out of touch with the typical tenets of Judaism, but designed to go “higher and deeper” into a new way of life.
On being salty(v. 13)
In modern English, “salty” is not a compliment, but suggests coarse or vulgar behavior. Salty language is inappropriate for delicate ears. Jesus used the metaphor in a much more positive way, challenging his followers to remain faithful and make the world a better place. “You are the salt of the earth,” he said (v. 13a).
Salt can be used both to flavor food and to preserve it. In the ancient world, where refrigeration was non-existent, salt was so highly valued and necessary that compensation for Roman soldiers included an allowance for salt: both “salt” and “salary” are derived from sal, the Latin word for salt.
Egyptian, Greek, and Roman physicians used salt as a disinfectant or in healing ointments and poultices. Hebrew midwives or mothers rubbed newborn babies with salt (Ezek. 16:4), possibly to ward off infection as well as to symbolize a wish that the child would live a life of integrity. The Israelites thought of salt as a symbol of faithfulness and probity: they were to include salt in their sacrifices and offerings as a “covenant of salt” that called for faithful living (Lev. 2:13, Num. 18:19, 2 Chron. 13:5).
Jesus used the metaphor to challenge his followers to add a lasting and flavorful quality to their communities and the world. As they exhibited the love and character of Christ, they would make life better for all.
What did Jesus mean by the additional phrase, “but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored”? Today we can buy salt – cheaply – that is pure sodium chloride, often with a bit of iodine added as an easy way to prevent thyroid problems caused by an iodine deficiency.
In our experience, when salt dissolves, it disappears entirely. In first century Palestine, however, much of the salt commonly sold on the street came from the Dead Sea, which has a salt content of 29 percent: seven times more concentrated than ocean water.
Less than half of the salt content in Dead Sea water is sodium chloride, however. And, whether collected from aggregates on the shore or evaporated from the water, the salt was typically mixed with sandy grains of gypsum.
Gypsum had the same appearance as the salt, but it did not dissolve or add flavor. Once the salt was dissolved, there might be a residue that had the appearance of salt, but it was not salt, and it was good for nothing other than to be thrown out.
Jesus was all too familiar with people whose faith was all show and no substance. He challenged his followers to be salt, not sand; to live out a faith that had real substance, not just show.
On being light(vv. 14-16)
Believers are to be not only genuine, but also visible. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus said. “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house” (v. 14a, 15). Jesus’ point was clear: there’s no purpose in lighting a lamp if it’s not going to be seen or provide illumination for a useful space.
Jesus lived long before the advent of electricity or even gas lamps. After dark, people lit their homes with small lamps that burned olive oil. The lamps were typically the size of a person’s palm, so they could be carried easily from place to place and set on a table or into a niche in the wall. Oil was expensive and not to be wasted: no one would think of lighting a lamp and then hiding it.
John’s gospel records Jesus saying, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5), but Jesus knew that he would not always be physically present. His light would need to shine on through his followers. That’s why he went on to say “you are the light of the world.”
As the lights of a hilltop city make it clearly visible to anyone who can see, so his followers were to shine as beacons of goodness and grace and hope. In case they had failed to understand by now, Jesus charged them: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (v. 16).
It’s likely that Jesus was familiar with a religious community known as the Essenes, a Jewish sect whose members chose to live in isolation so they could better follow strict guidelines of purity. They sought to be righteous, but remained apart from others, keeping their light to themselves. Jesus wanted his disciples’ faithful living to benefit someone other than themselves or even other Jews: they were the light of the world.
Modern believers who hear Jesus today might benefit from comparing the time we spend inside the church with our efforts to bring Christ’s light and love into the world. Does our light shine only within the bushel basket of our church building? Others cannot see or experience the light of Christ within us and be inspired to turn toward God if believers do not carry their light – and their good works – into the world.
Jesus and the law(vv. 17-20)
Jesus’ teaching often seemed at odds with the traditional laws of Judaism and rabbinic interpretations of the Pentateuch. Some might have responded by thinking that Jesus had come to abolish the law, but that was not the case. Jesus wanted his hearers to understand that his work did not dismiss the law, but fulfilled it (v. 17).
Jesus’ statement that “not one letter or one stroke of a letter” (v. 18) would pass away does not imply that believers should slavishly follow every aspect of the Old Testament law, however: in the following verses, Jesus directly challenged some of those very tenets.
It may seem counterintuitive, but the true fulfillment of the law might involve doing away with or moving past some less important or culturally conditioned aspects of the law: otherwise Christians would still be commanded to eat kosher and offer animal sacrifices for yom kippur, and the Apostle Paul would be spinning in his grave.
To fulfill the law is to understand and live out God’s purpose in giving the law. The late Malcolm Tolbert explained it this way: “God’s purpose, as revealed in the Bible, is to create a people who will love and serve him and one another. This purpose was behind God’s dealing with Israel, including his giving of the law, and it was brought to fruition in the life of Jesus the Messiah. In this way the law, seen in its totality, is fulfilled” (Good News from Matthew [Broadman Press: 1975], 43).
To fulfill the law is neither to be loose nor legalistic with its teachings, but to seek its true meaning through what God has done in Christ. Luke quoted Jesus as agreeing with an expert in the Jewish law that the essence of the law was to love God with all one’s being, and to love others as oneself (Luke 10:25-28).
People of Jesus’ day regarded the scribes and Pharisees, who sought to fulfill every tiny requirement of the law, as being especially righteous – to the extent that they would tithe even from seasoning herbs grown in their gardens. Later, Jesus charged them with hypocrisy: “For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matt. 23:23).
Jesus told his followers that their righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. But how could one go beyond the legendary righteousness of Judaism’s religious all-stars? To illustrate his meaning, Jesus threw out a series of illustrations of how the law had been interpreted in the past, and how the fulfillment of the law through his teaching and work might be different. We will focus on these teachings in the next two lessons.
In the meantime, today’s text has given us plenty to think about. Are we bright and salty Christians more righteous than those who practiced professional piety? What are some practical ways we can be salt and light to the people in our lives during this coming week?
The world is waiting. NFJ
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for February 5, 2017 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: Matthew 5:13-20
Have you heard your youth say, “They are salty!” or “That is salty!” Probably the first time you heard it you had no idea what it meant and looked it up in Urban Dictionary. “Salty” doesn’t have the same meaning now that it did when Jesus was using it to describe how his followers should be. How do you see you youth being the salt of the earth? When you see them doing good things, do you point it out to them? When you see them being a light to the world, do you tell them to shine brighter? They might be embarrassed if you do this publicly, but if you let them know in private, or send them a text message, they will treasure it. Make sure that you celebrate the good that you see in their lives.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“Coach Gaines on Being Perfect” from Friday Night Lights via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: Matthew 5:13-20