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Yr A ~ Epiphany 4 ~ Matthew 5:13-20
So that. These are two very powerful little words.
So that. It’s kind of too bad that they’re such small words because if we’re not careful it’s pretty easy to breeze right over them. I’m about to argue that these two little words are among the most important and crucial for understanding Jesus’ teaching.
Jesus is a master at painting word pictures and using parables to come at his meaning sideways because if he came straight on he’d probably ruffle too many feathers with how audacious his message was. Today’s reading isn’t a parable, but it does paint some amazing pictures that are powerful enough to be the whole message but then he zaps us with a “so that” that shows us what his real meaning is.
When you say “so that” you’re saying that everything you’ve said previously is the build-up, the groundwork, the foundational concepts that you’re working with. I’m not saying that everything before the “so that” doesn’t matter – in fact, I’m saying the opposite. It matters greatly, because you need a strong theological foundation in order to launch your “so that.” So let’s start with that foundation.
First, we need to set the context. Remember that this is part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount teaching. It’s the first real teaching he did in the gospel of Matthew, and the indications in the text are that at this point he’s still talking to his newly formed inner circle of freshly called disciples.
The Sermon on the Mount began with the Beatitudes which were all about describing Christian values, or more specifically kingdom values – values which stand in stark contrast to the usual conventional wisdom of the world’s values. If you remember our discussion of that passage two weeks ago we underlined how important utter surrender to God is for understanding the kingdom Jesus speaks of and invites us to be immersed in. Kingdom values are about living surrendered, sensitively, using our power gently, yearning for God, being compassionate, having pure intentions, being diplomatic, staying on the path even when facing obstacles.
So Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount painting the picture of this kingdom and telling his followers that they don’t have to do a single thing to earn it – that they are already ready to simply open their hand and receive it as they embody those values beginning with surrender to God’s Presence. And immediately upon telling us that ours is the kingdom of heaven he begins to say how kingdom people should act.
Here’s the kingdom – it’s all yours – now here’s how to live it out.
The Beatitudes explain our inward orientation – this passage explains our outward actions. Our actions flow from our orientation toward God. We love because we are loved.
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Jesus teaches that because the kingdom of heaven is yours you are the salt of the earth! And then he warns us about the dangers of not being salty. Jesus says that because the kingdom of heaven is yours you are the light of the world. And then he warns us about the dangers of hiding our light. Salt is meant to be salty – lights are meant to shine. That’s us.
He says that a city on a hill cannot be hidden. He means us. If you’re immersed in the kingdom of heaven, because you’ve surrendered and strive to embrace kingdom values, then you are salty and lit up and stand out like a city built on a hill in full view of the world. If you’re salty and lit up people are going to notice. If Jesus didn’t want people to notice us he’d have told us to be cities hidden strategically away. But not us – we’re supposed to be visible, living our faith out loud, being noticed.
Now, that flies in the face of our usual self-understanding that as people of faith we’re supposed to be meek, and mild, and self-deprecating, and quiet, and humble. I submit to you that our usual self-understanding is flawed. You can be salty and shiny without being a jerk about it, but you can’t be salty and shiny hidden away and not causing any fuss.
You are a city on a hill! Be seen!
You are a lamp on a lampstand! Shine.
Matthew 5:15 Jesus says, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.”
Please notice where the bushel basket that hides the lamp comes from. It comes from us, not someone else. It says nothing of anyone blocking your light or stifling your light. It just says that you’re the light and lamps are meant to be on lampstands and meant to shine, giving light to all in the house.
And here is where we start to find the “so that”!
We’re supposed to be salt and light. Absolutely.
Now consider for a moment what salt and light have in common – because on the surface it seems a very strange and unrelated pairing. Theologically speaking, the thing that links these is that both salt and light exist for something beyond themselves, for the sake of others.
Salt doesn’t just sit around enjoying that it’s salty. It flavours things, it preserves things, its usefulness comes when it gives itself away.
Same thing with light. Light does not exist for its own inner glow, it exists to cast light upon things like rooms and walking paths. Both salt and light are selfless givers.
That, in and of itself, is a pretty good sermon.
Be salt. Be light. Give yourself away for the benefit of others.
That’s good Christian stuff. If that’s all you take away from this morning that would be great! But wait, there’s more! There’s a “so that” coming!
Matthew 5:16 “In the same way (as a lamp lights up a room), let your light shine before others…”
The word before here means “in the presence of” others, right up close and personal, interacting, interconnecting. Let your light shine and light up other people – verse 16 then continues – let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works…
And finally we get our “so that”! Jesus says we’re supposed to let our light shine before others so that they can see our good works!
But wait a minute. Doesn’t that sound like bragging?
Does he mean that we’re to light up others so they can recognize how awesomely kind and compassionate we are as we do our good works? Are we expecting applause next?
No. And the reason this sounds strange is that I didn’t quite finish the whole verse, and it makes all the difference in the world. I think we have tended to hear only that far, and stop and focus on being doers of good – which is an excellent and worthy start but not the point of his “so that”.
Here’s the real “so that”. Here’s the purpose of shining our light before others. Listen to the whole of verse 16:
In the same way (as a lamp lights up a room), let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
So that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
You shine, so that others can see your good works, the way you live those kingdom values instead of the world’s values, and the payoff is that instead of them patting you on the back they are inspired to “give glory to God”. Jesus’ desired outcome from seeing light shine and kindness shared isn’t brownie points for the salty shiner but worship of God by the receiver of your salty shining!
The purpose of living kingdom values by being salty and shiny is to draw others into living kingdom values and them being salty and shiny.
My friends, I hesitate to tell you this, but this is not primarily a kindness text but rather it’s an evangelism text!
Jesus then finishes this section of his sermon by saying that going above and beyond the letter of the law is what’s expected of his disciples (like us). Keeping the law is all about keeping yourself righteous before God. If you keep the law you are good. But do you hear where all that is focused? It’s focused inwardly, on me, on the person keeping the law, for their own benefit. Jesus says he didn’t come to abolish the law but to surpass it. He does not tell us that the law is not important, but that the purpose of it all isn’t for us ourselves but to help others find their own way into God’s righteousness.
So, being good and doing good have a purpose, but it’s not self-aggrandizement. It’s for the sake of others – and not just to be a model of this alternate way of life called kingdom values for them, and not just to extend kindness and compassion to them but to entice them, draw them, lead them, inspire them, awaken them to the kingdom of heaven so that they can shine.
I know the word evangelism is problematic, because it conjures up images of crazy people bashing people over the head with their bibles trying to get them to agree with their theological views. That’s why I made up a silly word to replace evangelism – I call it faithvertising!
Call it whatever you like but know that the purpose of your saltiness and shininess is not just do-gooding but also recruiting.
Later Jesus will tell us that the two greatest commandments are to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and to love people. I like to say that the single greatest way you can love a person is to turn them on to commandment #1. Yes, love people, be salty, be shiny, do good, show compassion, fight for justice, do all those things because they’re necessary and they’re loving but know that ultimately the best thing you can do for a person is to help them notice God’s Presence, know God’s love, and reside in the kingdom of heaven just like you are.
Churches are, generally speaking, very, very good at doing good. We excel at helping others through the amazingly wonderful ministries we offer here. Meeting needs and working for justice are part of a United Church’s DNA and I do not for one second mean to suggest that it shouldn’t be.
The thing we’re not very good at is saying why.
Look, I’m not saying that we need to start flinging scripture at people when we practice compassion. I’m just asking us to remember that according to Matthew’s gospel when Jesus first taught his disciples he invited them into the kingdom of heaven and then immediately instructed them to invite others into it too, by shining, so they could, in turn, shine.
The Message translation puts verse 16 beautifully. It says, “Be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God.”
Interestingly, this is also the last thing he taught his disciples in Matthew. At the end of this gospel, the last two verses in fact, Matthew 28:19-20 Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
Go and be salty and shiny, and remember that the ultimate goal is to make disciples.
Yours is the kingdom of heaven, but it’s not just for you. It’s for everyone.
So go and love, shine, so that they can shine too.
Can you imagine a world where everyone was shiny? It would be like heaven!