"You are the light of the world"
Fourth Sunday before Lent Gospel Matthew 5:13-20
“You are the light of the world.”
In a memorable episode of The Vicar of Dibley, the stained-glass window in the church is smashed when a tree falls through it during a storm. The Reverend Geraldine Grainger persuades a local businessman to part with eleven thousand pounds to replace the window, but weeks later, when the new window is revealed, it is only plain glass. Geraldine has donated the money to an earthquake appeal in South America.
The legality of donating funds given for one cause to an entirely different cause is not addressed in the programme, but the congregation is so stunned by the sun shining through the plain glass window and illuminating the beauty of the surrounding countryside that no one raises any objections.
Today’s reading from Matthew is a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount. After the Beatitudes, Jesus continues by reminding all those who have flocked to listen that they are the light and the salt of the world.
In the first century, neither light nor salt could be created, and so both were precious commodities. Light came from the sun, with just a little being produced by fairly primitive oil lamps during the hours of darkness. Salt was mined or reclaimed from the sea in salt pans, in which the seawater was evaporated by the sun. Salt had many uses, including healing, flavouring, preserving and cleaning. Roman troops were often paid in salt, hence the word “salary”, and the first of the great Roman roads was the “Via Salaria” – the salt road.
Only a little salt is necessary for life, but without any salt at all the human body becomes chemically unbalanced, causing muscles and the nervous system to cease to function and eventually causing death. When Jesus says that if salt loses its saltiness it is only fit to be thrown out and trampled under foot, perhaps he is referring to the spiritual imbalance and death that would occur if we refuse to accept God. This would be like putting a bucket on top of a lamp so that light is extinguished, leaving total darkness.
Jesus is speaking, not only to his followers, but to the crowd. Even though they are ordinary people who have come to listen, Jesus is saying that they, and all human beings, are salt and light for the world, unless they choose to destroy that aspect of themselves. Nobody has to produce salt or light – that is provided for them by God. All they are required to do is allow the light to shine through them and to become salty for God.
Jesus goes on to say that he has not come to abolish the Jewish religion, but to reinterpret it. He draws a distinction between observing the law and being right with God. Even those who disobey the law and teach others to do the same will be part of God’s kingdom. At least those people are honest, if misguided. Only those hypocrites who obey the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit will find themselves outside the kingdom.
We too are light and salt for the world, not in some utopian future, but right now exactly as we are. Jesus does not expect us to produce amazing illumination. We just have to be open enough to transmit God’s light. The more open we are, the more God’s light will shine through us. As that happens, our tiny pinch of salt will increase until it begins to flavour life all around us, and when there is sufficient salt, preservation can begin, since more salt is required to preserve and heal than is needed for flavour.
It does not matter if we get things wrong. We do not need to know every detail of the doctrine of the Church. God’s law is there to help us live in the best way possible. But even if we fail, we will still find ourselves in God’s kingdom provided that we are learning to love, for Jesus said that the two most important laws are to love God and other human beings.
If we can do that, then God’s light will shine through us just as if we were plain glass, and we will be salty indeed for God.