Salt of the earth
13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men.
Light of the world
14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. 15 Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
The eight beatitudes are listed in Matthew 5: 3–10. The eighth beatitude was “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5: 11). In all eight beatitudes Jesus used the third personal plural pronoun. His next words were in the second personal plural, applying these words personally to the disciples when said, “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.” He told them that they were going to be persecuted and abused and treated as “prophets”. They were people who had to promote the word of God and suffer accordingly. That was why he changed from second to third person in speech. Immediately after listing the beatitudes he proceeded to say what his disciples were to be like. The first quality would be people of the word, prophets. The next would be the present Gospel reading, “salt” and “light”.
“You are the salt of the earth;” — Jesus has just proclaimed his manifesto, the Sermon on the Mount. Now he is telling his disciples what he expects them to be: salt and light.
There are so many things can be said about the importance, even necessity, of salt but these will be limited here to three: it penetrates, purifies and preserves. Disciples are to penetrate other people with Jesus’ teaching. They are to purify their thinking and faith also. Finally they are to preserve his teaching. Obviously the disciples are of a distinct material from what they are to work on.
“but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men.” — Once the orthodoxy of Jesus’ teaching has been lost it is impossible for the individual to help him/herself restore it. Strictly speaking, if salt loses its savour, it is no longer salt; it is a new material. It is useless and to be discarded.
“You are the light of the world.” — Jesus is the light of the world (Jn. 8: 12). He will not always be in the world physically and so he says “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (Jn. 9: 5). His disciples will then take over that role from him.
“A city set on a hill cannot be hid.” — Jerusalem was built on Mount Zion and could be seen for miles around. Isaiah had prophesied that Jerusalem would be the greatest “mountain” to which many nations and people would flow to learn God’s ways and follow his peaceful paths. Here is what Isaiah wrote:
“It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” (Is. 2: 2–5).
“Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel” — one does not put the light under a jar or a measure, as if to assess its luminosity or ability to penetrate.
“but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.” — A single light on a stand or a height sufficed for a house as these were almost entirely one–roomed houses
“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” — Jesus was strong in addressing his disciples when he spoke to them as “you are…” directly. Now to emphasise this he makes the moral application which they cannot misinterpret: they are to let people see the good works they perform so that these people will give glory to God for these good deeds.
The Father in heaven is one of the most common themes in Matthew’s Gospel (Mt. 5: 14, 45, 48; 6: 1, 9, 14, 26, 32, 7: 11, etc.).
Jesus has just listed the eight beatitudes, those good works which make us happy. Immediately he told his disciples that they would be ministers or servants of the word, that is prophets, to promote and proclaim the beatitudes. That, incidentally, would, as in his own case, mean suffering, pain and persecution. Then he told them what type of person he expected each and all of them to be: like salt and light. These were the two elements he considered to be the best way to describe a true disciple.
“You are the salt of the earth”. Who is being addressed by Jesus? His disciples. He did not have many at this stage so he is addressing each one of those who followed him. In this century, we are being addressed. We are the present–day bearers of the title “salt of the earth”.
Let us examine some of the qualities of salt. One of my ancestors made a tidy sum of money by selling salt for the fishing industry in a small Irish fishing port. At certain seasons, many hundreds from my county went to Scotland to preserve fish by adding salt. Disciples have to preserve the faith of new members from corruption. For that, they must know their faith. That they learn from the Church.
Faith that is preserved and practised in good works is beautiful because it is the way in which Jesus lives and works. Disciples are modelled on him; they put the beatitudes into operation.
Salt purifies and penetrates. It disappears into the food or other commodity to which it is added and it is not noticed from outside. It adds flavour and encourages people to indulge in what it enhances. Where there is sickness, it can disinfect and heal, particularly wounds. Where there are certain problems, salt can fertilise and certain wildernesses have been known to have been transformed into luxurious gardens.
Salt is absolutely essential for the human body, though, as in so many other cases, an overdose can be fatal. The Latin for salt is ‘sal’ from which the English word ‘salary’ is derived. The original meaning of this word was ‘money for food’, ‘for life’. It shows how important people thought a salary to be, essential to obtain purchases.
Salt was used specifically in religion to ratify covenants as a sign of permanence (Nm. 18:19; 2 Chr. 13:5). A covenant is a relationship of kinship between two people or groups. In the Bible, one of these would normally be God.
We might end here with pointing out that Jesus did not say that we should become the salt of the earth but that we are the salt of the earth.
“You are the light of the world”. Light was the first thing that God created. There was a void, a darkness, a chaos and God overcame it with light which brought a new creation. The most obvious thing about light is that it penetrates the darkness, which, in the Bible, is the domain of the devil. When Jesus said that he was the light, he indicated that just as light was necessary for the rest of creation, he was necessary for all creatures. He would show them the way.
Light gives comfort and heat. So many people have a light burning nearby all the time when they are relaxing. Parents keep a light burning in children’s rooms. Again, light gives heat.
When Jesus says that “I am the light of the world”, he means that he wishes to share himself with the world. That means that he wishes to share himself, his life and his mission with the world.
Both salt and light are used in the Sacrament of Baptism. Salt may be put on the tongue of the baby as a reminder of the permanence of his covenant with God. Salt and light remind the person being baptised of his/her obligation to be salt and light for other people, sharing faith and good works together and for others and bringing the light of truth to those who do not know Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Light, as well as the Life. These symbols bring out how important the individual being baptised is. By baptism, the individual is integral to Christ’s work and what is integral cannot be discarded. Each baptised person has been specifically chosen by Jesus as part of his team. He can change the world.