Open Matthew 5:13-16.
When Jesus labelled his followers as salt and light, did he mean that we are to preserve our society from decay (as salt) and shine light on evils around us so they can’t continue? Many people read these verses like this, but is it what Jesus meant?
John Stott sees the primary purpose of salt is preservation, so he reads the text as Jesus assigning to Christians responsibility to prevent society from going bad. Many (perhaps most) commentators follow this line.
“Christian” political organizations agree. Right-wing leaders like Fred Nile think Christians should form their own political parties, and he calls his newsletter Salt and Light. Lyle Sheldon thinks Christians should lobby politicians, and some of his supporters label this as being “salt and light.” Left-wing leaders call Christians to be salt and light through social action, though they choose different issues. The right speaks out on sexual issues like homosexuality and abortion, while the left speaks out on justice issues like refugees and poverty. Both the leftist and rightist causes appeal to Christians to be salt and light in society.
But is this what Jesus meant? Would that interpretation have made sense to his original audience? Would those sitting on the slopes of the Galilean hills have heard him instructing them to get involved in political or social critique? Would they have understood him to say, “If you, my followers, don’t do a better job of preserving Roman society, it will go to the dogs. Get out there and shine light onto the evil things the Romans do so they have to change.” If we’re talking political engagement, we are talking Roman overlords, and I really can’t see that as Jesus’ message.
Perhaps Jesus was demanding social engagement rather than political. Perhaps he meant, “If you, my followers, don’t do a better job of preserving Jewish society it will go to the dogs. Get out there and shine light onto the evil things Jewish people do so they have to change.” If that’s what Jesus meant, he had just teamed up with the Pharisees, because that was their agenda. The Pharisees pointed out where Jews were missing the mark, calling people back to Torah obedience so that God’s blessing could be restored. Is that what Jesus meant?
Jesus never did command us to be salt and light. He did not say “Be salt!” or “Be light!” There is no imperative.
He never commanded us to try to preserve society: in his view, it was already rotten. Adding salt to rotten food won’t make it good. Society in rebellion against God’s reign can’t be fixed; it has to be replaced … with God’s kingdom. Jesus’ salt metaphor had nothing to do with trying to preserve society.
Jesus did not say, “Go shine your light onto the works of darkness to show them up, so that they may hear your condemnation and be too ashamed to continue in their evil ways.” When Jesus described us as light, he was not inviting us to pass judgement.
The beatitudes were not imperatives, and neither are the metaphors of salt and light. He did not say to be salt and light. He said we are salt and light. The trouble with salt is that it’s such a strong taste (5:13). The trouble with light is that it’s so visible (5:14-16). His point was that salt can’t taste unsalty, that a city on a hill can’t be hidden, that it makes no sense to try to hide lamp under a bucket. Jesus has just been talking about persecution (5:10-12), so presumably fear of persecution is the motivation to tone down the salt taste or suppress the light.
Don’t try to hide it, Jesus says. If you did lose your saltiness, you wouldn’t save yourself anyway. Instead of being persecuted, you’d be treated even worse: thrown out and trampled underfoot (5:13). The people under his reign are a city God has set up on a hill because a people show the character of their ruler (5:14). You’re a lamp, so you can’t stick you head in a bucket (5:15). God intends people to see you being truly human — doing good stuff like caring for his people and creation, the very things humans were designed to do. When people see you fulfilling your humanity by reflecting the God-light like that, they’ll go, “Oh wow! That’s what humans were meant to be. What you’re doing shows (images) God.” Humans showing the glory of God — that’s how creation gets to know its God (5:16).
We’re not salt and light to show up the sinfulness of our world, but to show the glory of our God.
So don’t get sucked in by anyone who tries to enlist you in their campaign to show up the evils of the world by telling you to be salt and light. Instead, find creative ways to care for people who have borne the brunt of evil. The idea is that when people see you caring like that, they will be see you to be a child who reflects the majesty of the heavenly ruler.
We’re not the moral police for existing society. We’re the visible expression of the alternative society, the dawning of God’s reign.
What others are saying
Christopher Bryan, “Sermon on the Mount” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible edited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer et al (London: SPCK, 2005), 737:
Notably, the Proem [Matthew 5:3–16] is not exhortation, but proclamation. Those identified are “fortunate.” They may not seem fortunate in the world’s eyes, but they are, for “theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:10). The emphasis is not on “reward” but on God’s faithfulness: God will keep God’s promise. Similarly the passages on “salt” and “light” (5:13–16) are not exhortations to become those things but promises that those who seek to follow Jesus are these things.
It’s Stott’s application (last statement below) that I object to. Hindering the rot is a far less radical goal than replacing it with one based on God’s reign.
John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian Counter-Culture, (Leicestershire: IVP, 1985), 65:
Take first our vocation to be salt. The apostle Paul paints a grim picture at the end of the first chapter of his Roman letter of what happens when society suppresses (out of love for evil) the truth it knows by nature. It deteriorates. Its values and standards steadily decline until it becomes utterly corrupt. When men reject what they know of God, God gives them up to their own distorted notions and perverted passions, until society stinks in the nostrils of God and of all good people.
Now Christians are set in secular society by God to hinder this process.
James P. Eckman, Biblical Ethics: Choosing Right in a World Gone Wrong, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), 57:
Christians, then, as salt and light (Matt. 5:13–16), should seek to effect righteous change in the culture through the political process.
Eugene Peterson gets it right in The Message, Matthew 5:14-16:
Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.
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