You are the salt of the earth.
You are the light of the world.
In his attempt to give expression to the profound dignity and purpose of human beings created in the image of God, Jesus makes use of the images of salt and light. For us, salt may seem cheap and commonplace, but in the first century it was still a rare and expensive commodity. As Nancy Rockwell reminds us, “the mining of it made empires rich while working slaves to death in Jesus’ day. At great banquets, distinction was made between those who sat above and below the salt, a notable dish on the table. Orthodox churches include salt in the baptismal liturgy, pouring some on the wet infant with the words, ‘May you be preserved for eternal life.’”
When Jesus invokes the image of salt over us, he is telling us that we are precious in God’s eyes, people of great worth.
Light, on the other hand, continues to be an evocative metaphor. To be light is to be brilliant, illuminating everything around it. To be light is to be that which overcomes darkness. We light a candle and present it to the newly baptized, reminding them that they are bearers of the light of Christ.
When Jesus invokes the image of light over us, he is telling us that we need not be ashamed of who we are, hiding in the shadows. God sees us, and in his light we are light.
You are salt and light. This is a statement of identity. It is who you are. That is step one: getting clear about your identity. Remember who the “you” is that Jesus is addressing. He is speaking to those who are poor, grieving, humble, those who hunger for and thirst for justice, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted and reviled. Y’all are blessed – not because of your privilege or your prestige or your precedence – but in your vulnerability, your desire, your willingness: in short, your messy humanity. You are salt and light. And don’t you forget it.
Do you hear what Jesus is saying? This is not a command: be salt, be light – or else! This is a description. It is also, I think, an invitation to see ourselves as we are. You are salt! You are light! You may not feel like it today. Maybe it isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you look in the mirror. But look again. Look a little deeper. So you are poor? You are still precious. You are grieving in the shadow of death? Your brilliance still illuminates the room. You’ve taken a hit for doing the right thing, you keep struggling for justice no matter the odds? Now you’re really getting salty! Your light is like the noonday!
My sisters and brothers, I know you are salt and light: each and every one of you. Most of you, more than you will ever know. You can never be reminded enough. Jesus said so, and I believe him.
Now, salt doesn’t try to be salt. It just is salt. And it is very difficult to make salt “unsalty.” Salt is a very stable compound. You’ve got to dilute it with a lot of water to make it lose its flavor. For the rabbis, salt was also used as a metaphor for wisdom, and the Greek word we translate as “lose its savor” can also be rendered “become foolish.” If we lose contact with our inner wisdom, our intuitive responsiveness to the divine impulse within us, we become foolish. We are no longer ourselves.
Nobody lights a lamp and then puts it under a bushel. You set it on a lampstand so that it can illuminate the house. Similarly, we are invited to be transparent to the divine light within us, to let it shine through us. A light that doesn’t shine is no longer light at all. Allow the divine light to become a dim flicker, and we are no longer ourselves.
Salt and its quality of flavoring and preserving are not separable. Light its quality of providing warmth and illumination are not separable. Identity and function (or purpose) are intrinsically related. You don’t have to become salt and light. You already are. It is only when we try to be something we are not that the salt loses its savor, and our light is hidden under a bushel basket.
So Jesus tells us that we just are salt and light. But he doesn’t stop there. It is one thing to be told you are salt and light. It is another thing to realize it your self. So Jesus goes on to say something that, at first blush, may sound like a complete contradiction to his earlier teaching. “Unless you keep the whole law – and observe it even better than the religious experts (the scribes and the Pharisees) – you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Now that sounds like a command, not just a description. It isn’t about who we are, but what we are supposed to do. Realizing our salt and light nature, our Christ nature, requires an intentional moral and spiritual discipline.
We can forget who are, becoming foolish and full of darkness rather than light. It happens. I don’t know why, but it does. We become ensnared by other identities, burdened by the perceptions of others who don’t see us as we truly are. We buy into the lie that we are not salt and light. So, we need the law, the teachings and practices of our tradition to remind us. We need some spiritual tools that prevent the dilution of the salt in us, and that remove the bushel basket obscuring the light in us.
The paradox is that our spiritual practices are in the service of helping us realize who we already are. Our meditation and worship and service to others don’t change us into someone else; rather, they change our perception so that we see who we are more clearly. Once our perception becomes aligned with reality, then the salt and the light manifest their qualities without any effort on our part.
Here, it is important to remember that spiritual practices are not ends in themselves. Our fasts and worship, our prayers and purifications, can easily become a mere façade, another way of obscuring the salt and light in us. This is the powerful insight of the prophet Isaiah. It is quite possible to say our prayers, attend worship, observe fasts, and all the while oppress our workers, kill our enemies, and destroy the environment. Even KKK rallies open and close with prayer. The law can be used to provide a religious veneer justifying all manner of evil.
Our spiritual practices are not magical acts. It is quite possible to meditate for hours every day and still be a selfish and cruel. We can use spirituality as another means in the project of bolstering self-image and willfulness. It is quite another thing altogether to engage in the same spiritual practices with a willingness to surrender everything that obscures the salt and the light in us so that we can become transparent to God’s love.
I think this is what Jesus means when he says that our righteousness has to exceed that of the religious experts. The problem with the scribes and the Pharisees is that they believed there adherence to the law made them morally superior, setting them apart from others. They were in it for themselves. Their righteousness is in the service of the their self-image. Our adherence to the law must be in the service of something much larger than that. It isn’t about being good or bad, right or wrong. It is about accepting the truth of who we are, and allowing that acceptance to manifest in humility and compassion to salt the earth and light the world.
If we are to realize our true nature as salt and light, we need to engage in an intentional spiritual practice or path to help us cleanse the lens of perception and let go of the impediments to that realization. At the same time, we have to drop our judgments, comparisons, and evaluation. These only serve our self-image, whether that image is positive or negative, whether we flatter ourselves or beat ourselves up. It keeps the focus on “me” – on the image I am trying to preserve or change; rather than on the divine salt and light that seeks to manifest through “me” and, yes, sometimes even in spite of “me.”
A priest in our diocese, Christopher Martin, has launched the Restoration Project, a renewal movement to engage in spiritual practices that help us to reclaim our identity as salt and light. During the 40 days of Lent this year, he is inviting people to engage in the 20 + 1+ 4 challenge: 20 minutes of daily prayer and meditation, 1 hour of worship per week, 4 hours of service to people in need per month. The purpose of these disciplines is not to set one apart as morally or spiritually superior, but rather to support for our desire to realize the salt and light in us; not for our own sakes, but for the sake of the world.
There is an announcement in the weekly news with more information about this project and a website with supportive resources. Think if this as an experiment in following Jesus. If there is interest, we will form a small group or groups at St. James to support one another in this forty day experiment, to reflect together on what we learn, and to find appropriate ways to share that learning with the parish. Together, we can discover that we are the Salt of the earth and the Light of the world. That is what the Church is for. Amen.