Sermon; Epiphany 5A; Matt. 5:13-20
Last week was Epiphany 4 and the gospel for the day was the Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. In Year A we get readings from this famous sermon beginning on Epiphany 4 and running through the second-to-last Sunday of the season. But the reason you don't remember hearing the Beatitudes, or a sermon on them, is because last week we had the privilege of celebrating the Feast of the Presentation and Candlemas.
So . . . enough intro and back to our regularly scheduled program.
Today we have the second section from the Sermon on the Mount. Most of Jesus' sermon has to do with individual behavior, ethics, and faith. But today's section, although filled with several “You” statements, is more about corporate behaviors, ethics, and faith, rather than the individual. Today there are three areas I've been thinking about: being the salt of the earth, being a light to the world, and abolishing the law and prophets.
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.” When we use this statement about another person it carries a certain meaning. If, for instance, I'm talking about Bob to someone else, and I say, “Yeah, that Bob, he's a real salt-of-the-earth fellow.” It means he's honest, trustworthy, hard working, and a straight shooter. Using that term is a way of bestowing a particular person with a type of status. When I say Bob is salt-of-the-earth, you know that he's not a career politician.
But in the reading today this term is not related to status, but to function. The function of salt is to add flavor to an otherwise bland food. If salt is not salty, then all it does is add more blandness. You/we are the salt of the earth. Our function is to add flavor to an otherwise bland world.
Look around. People are rundown. They are tired. Feelings of lost hope are everywhere. It is our function to add flavor by offering a place to recharge and renew, as well as offering a place and message of hope. But people won't know that, or they won't know anything about us or Christ, if we act like we've lost our saltiness.
Likewise with Jesus' comment about being the light of the world. Being a light doesn't make us special. But because we are people who follow Christ, because we try to live our lives based in Christ's love, we function as lights in a darkened world. When I pray Evening Prayer during the late fall/early winter months, I hope that someone will see the lights of the church shining through the darkness and venture in. Like any light that draws things from the dark unto itself, our function is to shine the light of Christ into a darkened world and offer a place for people to come and experience God.
My final thoughts about this passage, and what I've given most attention to, have to do with Jesus' comments about abolishing the law and the prophets. He says he hasn't come to abolish but to fulfill. And then he says something . . . intriguing: “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”
As Christians we view Jesus as the embodiment of the God-human relationship. In Christ, God has become attainable. Through Christ we have an example of what it means to live fully in relationship with God. For the early Christians, who had deep Jewish roots, and even for us today, the question then becomes, “Did Jesus come to fulfill the law, or did Jesus come to abolish the law?”
If Christ came to fulfill, then the law remains in full effect. If Jesus came to abolish, then we have no need of the law and can ignore all that came before. But Jesus gives us a third way – neither simply fulfilling nor easily abolishing, but a way that is transforming.
Take the Sabbath, for instance. In multiple places, the law decrees that the Sabbath is to be kept holy and no work is to be done on that day. We are all familiar with that particular law. But were you aware that in at least two places the law prescribes death as the punishment for breaking that particular law?
Jesus, on several occasions, broke this particular law. This is one reason the Pharisees were upset with him. That and because he was, by his example, teaching others to also break the law.
But we need to look at the bigger picture. Why was the law given? The law was given to set boundaries for a people newly freed from slavery. When the Israelites escaped from Egypt, they moved from slavery to freedom, from death to life. The law was given to help them live. It was, in effect, life-giving. So the law could not be abolished or those early Jewish Christians would have no foundation on which to work.
Should we fulfill the letter of the law and sentence to death anyone who works on the Sabbath? No. Should we abolish the law and do what each person feels to be right? No.
Instead we have Jesus who transforms the law. He ate on the Sabbath because food gives life nourishment and sustains the body. He healed on the Sabbath because a healed body is life-giving and life-sustaining. The law was also life-giving and life-sustaining. Jesus is fulfilling the law by transforming it.
The law was given by a God who is just and merciful (“What does the Lord require? To do justice and love mercy”). The law is based on a God that desires his people be free, nourished, and restored. What Jesus does is to go beyond the simple, plain text reading of the law to a place where the law embodies the love and intention of God. The words of the law are abolished while the heart of the law is fulfilled. The law is transformed.
If we miss that, we miss everything Jesus is working for. If we only focus on the simple words, and teach others to do the same, then we will have missed the heart of the law and we will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. We will be like the person in the banquet story who sits at a place of honor because he thought that's where he belonged, only to be told to move down in rank because he was the least of those attending.
So let us go from here remembering that being salty doesn't make us special, but it is our function to salt the earth with the love of God. Let us remember that our function isn't to shine a light on ourselves, but to shine in the dark allowing other people to find their way. And let us be less concerned with obeying the words of Scripture and more concerned with how the law, prophets, and all of Scripture calls us to a life of mercy, justice, and love. In other words, let us work to transform the world as Jesus transformed the law.