Light matters. We live in a world filled with electricity, where we can get light at the flick of a switch. This was not always the case, and was definitely not so in Jesus’ time. A few years ago, I had an experience which brought this home for me strongly. We spent a weekend as a family, along with some friends, at a cottage in Suffolk with no electricity. When darkness fell – about 5.30 at that time of year – the only light in the house came from low-powered gas lamps, the wood fire, or torches. Getting up in the night and hearing the noises of the night takes on a different dimension in that environment. And of course that was the lived experience of everyone in the ancient world. The rich had candles and torches; the poor maybe not even those. So darkness mattered – it was a thing of threat and danger and fear. And of course the scriptures are full of images of light and dark.
Well, we live in dark times. The United States, already riven with division between rich and poor, black and white, liberal and conservative, has elected a president who seems determined to divide things further. We all know the things he has started and is promising, perhaps especially his policy towards immigrants. In this country, we have divisions around nationality and identity caused by the European referendum and the way the government is handling Brexit. In France, Germany and even the Netherlands, extremist politicians have at least a good chance of success in elections this year.
It’s frightening. I’d quite like to hide my head under the duvet for the next few years, in the hope it all goes away. I understand entirely those who want to say it won’t be as bad as it seems, that the good sense and well-designed constitutions of these solid democracies will kick in and rescue us all. Or who want to find a way to accommodate the bullies, to tame the dragons. Or to retreat to safe churches and sing about the glory of God and the sacrifice of Jesus, all the while ignoring the world God created and for which Jesus sacrificed himself.
It is by acting in these ways, in hungering for righteousness, in seeking peace, in being merciful, that we are part of the kingdom of heaven. At the end of Matthew’s text, Jesus says that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. We might not think well of those kinds of people, because Jesus had some pretty earthy things to say against them, but they were holy people, clearly keeping the commands of God, and Jesus was setting a high bar in saying his followers needed to exceed their righteousness. But he showed the way in talking of being salt and light, of the blessedness of those who acting in the way of the Beatitudes. Righteousness comes not through the keeping of multiple laws, or the following of ritual actions, but in the way you turn your heart towards God, and in the ways you treat God’s people.
Isaiah knew this. He was inspired clearly by God to show the people of Israel that their rituals and fasting were not enough. Elsewhere in the book of Isaiah, the prophet has God say that “my soul hates your new moons and your appointed festivals, they have become a burden to me”. Here God’s people are called to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to share bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless into their own houses.
The people of Israel departed from these laws plenty of times and so God sent them the prophets such as Isaiah, who spoke in the way we’ve seen, or Ezekiel and Jeremiah, who mourned the faithlessness of God’s people, or Micah, who said that what God required was to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. All these prophets sought to restore the basic truth of the law: God’s justice demands that God’s people treat everyone with care and compassion. God is a champion of the poor, the oppressed, the exiles everywhere.
And that is the message that Jesus came not to abolish but to fulfil. He came to instruct his disciples in how to do this, how to find their way to the kingdom of heaven – not by chanting empty slogans about his greatness and sacrifice, but by acting for God’s people, and by standing up as God’s people.
Because there are two important words in the salt & light verses, and they’re the same each time – the first two. YOU ARE the salt of the earth, YOU ARE the light of the world. I’ve been reflecting on those words ‘YOU ARE’, hymeis este in the Greek. In English we have mostly lost a distinction between the singular and plural ‘you’, except in a few dialects which have plural versions such as ‘youse’ that’s found in parts of Ireland, Scotland and north-east England, or ‘y’all’ in the southern part of the US. But ancient Greek mostly definitely did distinguish between singular and plural, and hymeis is clearly plural. Jesus is not speaking to us as individuals here, but to all of his followers – we are all salt and light to the earth.
Plurals matter. We live in a very individualistic society, and very often the words of the Bible are taken to refer to us as individuals. But most of the Old Testament and much of the New are addressed in the plural, to the people of God as a whole. We need each other for support and guidance, to lift each other up when we fall. There’s a great church in New York called Riverside, whose founding pastor was the preacher and hymn writer Harry Emerson Fosdick. Their current lead pastor is called Amy Butler, and she wrote recently about being part of the women’s march on Washington:
Almost immediately after I emerged from the Metro station onto the sidewalk in downtown D.C., in that mass of people stretching as far as I could see, I began to feel something I haven’t felt in some time: hope. I didn’t feel so alone or despairing anymore. I didn’t feel that our community was in the minority in our calls for the church to speak up. And I started to believe again that change might actually be a possibility, and that pushing back the darkness becomes a reality when all of us hold up our lights and raise our voices. Together.
The other important word in that YOU ARE is the second one, ARE. Jesus does not say: ‘you will be the light of the earth’, or ‘you will be the light of the earth’, or ‘under certain conditions, you have the capacity to become the light of the earth’. He says that, right here and now, his followers exist to bring light to the world, to bring flavour and taste to the earth. I find this is a great act of trust, a great promise, on Jesus’ part, given the motley band he had around him, and it’s no less an act of trust today. Each of us in this room, working together, are light and salt to the world.
But to me this is a challenge as much as it is a promise. His imagery of hiding lamps under baskets and of salt losing its flavour is vivid and it challenges us not to hide our light away. Throughout the New Testament, Jesus is referred to as the light of the world, and our hymnbooks are full of songs about Jesus as light. But he puts it on to his followers here. He calls us to be the light for him. The Biblical scholar Matthew Skinner puts it like this: “the church isn't holding space for Jesus until he comes back - the church is making Christ present”. Isaiah put it that if God’s people feed the hungry, welcome in the homeless, clothe the naked and the rest, then “your light shall break forth like the dawn”.
And how do we do it? How do we act as salt and light for the world? In the same way that Isaiah says, in the way that Jesus said in the Beatitudes – we look for injustice in our society and we challenge it. Sometimes this means specific work to help those in immediate distress, like the work Christians and others do at food banks or to care for the homeless. But sometimes it means challenging the ways that injustice arises. There is an idea that the church should stay out of politics, that politics has no place in the pulpit. This is mostly said by those who are comfortable or in power.
Those who are suffering need the church to act on their behalf. They need Christians to confront laws which would bar refugees because they come from the wrong countries and to say: this is not found in the word of God. They need Christians to confront policies which shut down health care, or put people on benefit sanctions for trivial administrative errors, or close day centres for people with dementia and say: this is not found in the word of God. They need Christians to confront warmongers and environmental destroyers and robber-baron banks and say: this is not found in the word of God. None of this involves telling people how to vote, but it most certainly does involve politics.
And to return to American politics once more, this passage is really important. The first governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, talked of Boston as a shining city on a hill; and many American politicians have followed his example. Public life, the work of politics, can be give glory to God, in the way it is conducted and in its positive effects on the world. It is not something to be afraid of, but to be embraced as an act of Christian witness.
We have a huge privilege as Christians, of following the one who can transform lives, but he needs us to act as agents of that transformation. And we are given strength towards that transformation. A 19th century Quaker author by the name of Caroline Fox puts it beautifully. Suffering from great self-doubt and questioning one morning in a service of worship, she was given the words “live up to the light thou hast, and more will be granted thee”. If we are willing to act in the world, to take up the challenge of being the light of Christ, working together as a people of God, then he will give us the strength we need. And with that strength, we can let our light shine and all will see our works and give glory to our father in heaven.