Isaiah 58:1-12               

Matthew 5: 13-20

Not far from Capernaum in Israel there is a place near the Sea of Galilee that overlooks the water–it’s not so much way up high on a mountain as it is near the top of a long slope down toward the shore– it’s where a person can stand in a wide overhanging cleft in the rocks and speak in a normal voice and, surprisingly, be heard fairly clearly by the people standing at a distance below. It’s an interesting acoustic feature of the landscape, and so it is no surprise that located not far away from that spot is the Church of the Beatitudes, said to mark the site of the Sermon on the Mount. In this place it is possible to set aside questions of veracity–Was it really right here? –and instead let your imagination do what it does best. Adjust your hat to shade your face from the hot sun, settle as well as you can on the rocky, dusty ground. Brush away a couple of buzzing insects, feel the breeze from off the water below, and look up the hill, where you can hear him as he begins to speak in a clear, authoritative voice; to the eager crowd, to his disciples, and to us. 

He speaks first, of blessings, on the spiritually lost, the grieving, the merciful, the peacemakers, the persecuted. Blessings, significantly, upon those who take up the risky joy of following Jesus–those who are reviled because they are disciples.

Then he speaks of salt. And light, And the nearness of the Kingdom, the Dream of God.

You’re right there. You can feel it. You can almost taste it.

Jesus knew the power of the imagination, and he counted on it, using visceral images to engage his listeners. He also knew the power of a single word to shake people out of their everyday expectations. 

You are salt. You. Are. Salt.

You are light. You. Are. Light.


The Sermon on the Mount–all three long chapters of it–comprises Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom. And the concept of time is the thread that weaves all the way through it. This passage today–which follows the Beatitudes that we heard about last week–if you put it in academic terms, is a sort of an abstract of his overall argument that the Dream of God is not distant. It is present, in both space and time.

According to biblical scholar Edwin Van Driel, Jesus’ sermon addressed tensions within Judaism concerning Israel’s identity; how should Israel be Israel in a time of Roman occupation, waiting for God’s promises of divine kingship, and all the while seeking and striving to be found righteous, that is, obedient to the Covenant at the coming of the time when God begins to do a new thing with Creation?  In other words, how should Israel best express its identity as the people of God in its current context?

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

In the second half of today’s Gospel passage, Jesus particularly addresses the Pharisees. There has been a temptation in some fundamentalist Christian circles to see this statement as evidence that Jesus Christ nullifies the witness of Hebrew scripture by declaring his interpretation of the Law (expressed in greater detail through the next two chapters) to be “replacement”, or “new and better” commandments.” No, no, and no. This comes from a perspective that views the body of Hebrew Scripture as simply a vehicle for foretelling the coming of Christ. Again, No. When Jesus speaks of fulfilling the law and the prophets he speaks as a Jew, to Jews. This is not an issue of the validity of Torah; it is, rather, a matter of perspective; what is the lens through which Torah is viewed?

Returning to the question: How should Israel express its identity as the people of God in a time of military Gentile occupation so as to ultimately be found righteous at the long-awaited arrival of the Kingdom of God? Van Driel proposes that the Pharisees whom Jesus addresses seek to express and preserve their identity as a people called and set apart by God through diligent study and practice of Torah. This, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. He says that Jesus, a good Jew, has no basic argument with faithfulness to Torah practice, but the tension, and Jesus’ critique, lie in the fundamental difference between how he and the Pharisees perceive the relative nearness of the Dream of God. Van Driel writes:

“The Pharisees worked on the assumption that the fulfillment of God’s eschatological promises lay still in the future; that God’s reign had not yet begun; that the [centuries-long-past] exile, as it were, continued…Against this, Jesus was ‘proclaiming the good news of the kingdom–God was already doing a new thing. Preserving one’s identity was therefore not enough. One did not put a lamp ‘under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house’”

You are salt.

You are light.


Not, you will be, or you should be. You are. Those who have responded to Jesus’ call to follow him are already participating in God’s saving Kingdom work. And what that looks, and feels, and tastes like, is salt and light. 

Salt was a symbol of the Covenant between God and the people of Israel. When Jesus warns his disciples that salt could lose its flavor and be trampled underfoot, this image would probably be clearer to them than to us. Jesus meant that their vocation to saltiness was a vital responsibility. It was not to be wasted or taken lightly–it was as serious as the Covenant itself. Again, this reinforces Jesus’ fidelity to the Law: “I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill.” 

So, salt. Salt brings out the goodness in things. My mother used to salt her grapefruit, which I thought was ludicrous until I tried it and realized how the salt elicits more dimension and sweetness from the fruit. To be the salt of the earth is to reveal the goodness in others–to inspire, and to be a vehicle of, compassion and healing, exemplifying God’s mercy and lovingkindness in the world.

Salt also stimulates thirst.  A thirst to speak truth to power, to disorder the status quo. A thirst for, in the words of the prophet Amos, justice and reconciliation to roll down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. A thirst for getting in “good trouble.”

Jesus called his disciples salt. What does salty discipleship mean for us as a community? How do we elicit goodness and lovingkindness in the world? How might our saltiness draw us to remember the water of our baptismal covenant? For what do our souls thirst?

Because we are salt.

And we are light. Shining like a beacon of hope, drawing the world toward beloved community. Providing warmth and welcome to all who enter. But these are only the easy light images. To truly be light to the world–a light that most vividly and courageously reveals the inbreaking Now of the Dream of God, is to go where light shines most brightly; Into the darkest and riskiest places within the world and ourselves–to confront the grittiness of suffering, and the shadow of the principalities and powers that obscures human dignity and mutual respect. To be light in the world is risky, it takes courage, and it is ours to do. 

Because we are light.

In this context, hear again the words of Isaiah from our first reading: 

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly…

We are salt.

We are light. 

We may see ourselves as awaiting the Kingdom, when in fact the Kingdom is here, now, waiting for us. We can taste it.

May we thirst for it.