Reflections on the Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5:13-16

July 17, 2018
Matthew 5:13-16 is another very familiar passage from the Sermon on the Mount.  In it, Jesus issues a clarion call to his disciples. He does so by reminding them of who they are (“salt” and “light”) and by urging them to make their identity known to those around them.

But how do we do what Jesus has asked us to do?  People often think about this passage when they think about sharing the gospel, and for good reason.  The good news about Jesus is a light that our world desperately needs. But I would like to suggest that there are at least three other ways that we should be “salt” and “light.”

Priorities

The first way that we reflect our identity as children of God (notice how often the phrase, “your Father in heaven,” or phrases like it, occur in the Sermon on the Mount) is by displaying priorities that are in line with the priorities of “the kingdom of heaven.”   As we discussed last week, the priorities of the kingdom are not always consistent with the priorities that we naturally possess as humans. The kingdom values righteousness and peace over power and self preservation. The kingdom values humility and gentleness over self-assurance and self-promotion.  The kingdom calls us to treasure the experience of being sad and misunderstood, when all that we want to do is avoid such experiences.

The theme of alternative values is repeated throughout the Sermon on the Mount, and it comes to its most poignant expression in the command to seek God’s kingdom and righteousness first (Matthew 6:33).  Of course, the hardest part of this command is the word “first.”  How can we value God’s agenda and God’s standards more than our own well-being?  But that is precisely how we live in a way that is consistent with, and bear witness to, our identity as followers of Jesus.

Behavior

The second way that we live into our identity as “salt” and “light” is through behavior that conforms to God’s expectations of us.  Jesus is not interested in articulating an ethical theory that is divorced from the exigencies of daily life and that is devoid of specific guidance for how to deal with those exigencies.  The rest of the chapter makes this clear. Jesus is interested in an ethic that embodies one’s new priorities.

Jesus calls for an ethic in which murder never has an opportunity to come to fruition because the hatred that is its fuel is extinguished.  He calls for an ethic in which marriage reflects God’s design from faithful human love, not one in which marriage serves as a cover for misogyny or perversion.  He calls for an ethic in which enemies are seen for what they are—humans created in the image of God—and are treated as such.

The ethics of Jesus will not appeal to the powerful, the promiscuous, or the vengeful.  Indeed, many of those who do not have the resources to pursue such pleasures will still find them more attractive than the self-denial for which Jesus calls.  Nevertheless, the ethics of Jesus are the ethics of God’s kingdom, and if we want to be God’s children, they must be our ethics, too.

Suffering

A third way to be “salt” and “light” is to have a proper perspective in suffering.  This point may not be immediately obvious when one reads the Sermon on the Mount. It was actually Calvin College philosopher James K. A. Smith’s response to a brilliant lecture by Francis Collins on bioethics that got me thinking about it.  In his response, Smith makes the distinction between our undeniable duty to “alleviate” suffering and our desire to “eliminate” suffering.  The former, according to both Smith and Collins, is a reflection of Christ’s own work in the world. The latter, Smith asserts, may be a dangerous attempt on our part to deny our own dependence on God (and on one another).  

If Smith’s concerns are well-founded, then the desire to eliminate suffering—at least in this epoch of salvation history—is tantamount to idolatry.  It seeks to deny our creatureliness and thus divorces us from a relationship of love and gratitude to our Creator. Moreover, it undermines the “care” (as Smith puts it) that we ought to have for our fellow sufferers.  Thus, the work of eliminating suffering no longer functions as an extension of the noble intent to alleviate suffering. Instead, it becomes a deadly distortion of that aim and results in the destruction of sufferers simply because they suffer.

With these insights as our framework, we can see the need to suffer all over the Sermon on the Mount.  Vv. 11-12 have just stated the importance of enduring persecution, and self-denial is an important undertone of all of chapter six.  Indeed, Jesus has already said that those who “are sad” (traditionally translated “mourn”) are blessed. Why are they blessed? Because their suffering brings them into even greater dependence on the God who loves them.  That nearness brings them comfort, and that comfort is not to be treated lightly.

When we suffer well, we show the world that God is our Father and that His approval means more to us than our own happiness.  We also show the world that God can be trusted, for we will not make this bargain unless we believe that God will keep His promises.  And what are His promises? Simply this: that we will receive His comfort in the present and that our suffering will be redeemed in the future.

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