February 9, 2014

Matthew 5:13-20
Isaiah 58:1-12

“Living in the World as Salt and Light”

Over the last few days I have been pondering what Jesus might have meant when he told his disciples and others who came to hear his teaching, “You are the salt of the earth,” and “You are the light of the world.” I’ve been thinking about the metaphors themselves, and how God’s people might be like salt or like light for the world.

As light, perhaps our role is to bring new wisdom or understanding, to assist others to see what is real and true, or to expose problems or injustices that need to be corrected. As salt, maybe our job is to make things better, like salt enhances the flavour of food without drawing attention to itself. Salt may also be used to cleanse, or to preserve, or even to kill. What insights might these functions give for what it means for us to be salt, as Jesus tells us we are?

But rather than get stuck naming all the possible meanings and trying to figure out what Jesus might have meant, Edwin Van Driel, in a reflection on this Gospel text, invites us to begin by considering what Jesus’ words might have meant to those who first heard them.

Jesus’ original audience consisted of the Jewish disciples and crowds who gathered in Palestine to listen to his wise teaching. Of course, we must remember their immediate context – they were the people of Israel living under the occupation of the Roman Empire. And the wider context was the fact that Israel had been ruled by other empires since the Babylonian exile. Even while the people of Israel had physically returned to the land of their ancestry, the exile could be said to have continued: land, city, and temple ruled by the Romans – soldiers’ boots marching through the country; and the prophetic promises of divine kingship never fully fulfilled.

Van Driel’s reflection points out that in this Gospel text (and throughout his teaching ministry) Jesus is offering a model for his people – a way for them to live as God’s people in the midst of their challenging context.

Now, it’s not that they didn’t already have some ideas for how to live as the people of Israel under the Roman occupation. Every Jewish group was offering possibilities. At one end of the spectrum, the Sadducees attempted to get along by collaborating with the occupiers, while the group known as the Zealots promoted active resistance and planned to take up weapons and fight the empire.

Some of the Pharisees agreed with the Zealots and wanted to fight against the Romans. But others, realizing that the small Jewish nation was no match for the vast military resources of the empire, opted for the ghetto instead of the sword. They turned towards deeper private study and the practice of Torah, determined that if they could not obtain political independence, at least they could preserve their cultural and religious identity as a people called and set apart by God. These Pharisees put all their energy into living in covenantal righteousness (following the covenant laws of God as closely as possible) while waiting for God to express God’s faithfulness to them in the eschatological coming of God’s kingdom.

So in the midst of the Roman occupation, first century Jews were invited to choose between collaboration, violent opposition, or withdrawal, and Jesus was offering another option for his people. Jesus suggests a different response to the situation, and calls the people of Israel to be what God made them to be.

Although God’s people were chosen and set apart, it has been very clear from the beginning that they have a mission beyond themselves. Just think of God’s promise to Abraham way back at the beginning: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing… and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Or remember God’s promise to Moses and the Hebrews, that if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, 6but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” In other words, the people of Israel will have a special relationship with God, and a special responsibility for others – for all the nations and peoples of the earth who will come to their light and be blessed through them.

So Jesus reminds his people that even in the midst of their struggles, they are the light of the world – called to be out in the world (not hidden away) and to do good works so that others may see and give glory to God in heaven. They are the salt of the earth – called to participate in what is happening around them, to enhance and bring out what is good, to cleanse and clear out what is bad, and to preserve what should be kept.

That is the kind of work that Jesus did in his ministry. He didn’t come to abolish the law, or to throw away the religion of his people, but he came to fulfill it, to complete it, to perfect it like salt that is used appropriately. He came neither to overthrow the empire, nor to collaborate with it, but like a bright and clear light, to reveal to God’s people an alternate way of being in the world in the midst of the empires.

For Jesus’ first listeners, these would have been challenging words. He was calling them to a risky engagement with the powers of the world that could get them into trouble – the kind of trouble that Jesus got into himself when he lived according to his own rules.

Fifty or sixty years later, when Matthew’s community heard Jesus’ words, his instructions would have struck fear into the hearts of the early Christian men and women as well. A natural instinct for self-preservation would have encouraged them to stay out of the public sphere, to go underground, and to avoid confrontation. They were a small, powerless, and persecuted group, and the Pharisees’ strategy of keeping to themselves and doing their best to live good, righteous lives in the way of God might have seemed like the best and safest plan.

Of course we know from history that many of the early Christians didn’t keep to themselves and stay out of harm’s way. Instead they went out preaching, and sharing, and proclaiming the gospel in word and deed. They passed along the stories and the teachings of Jesus, they started new churches, and they figured out together (as Jews and Gentiles) what it meant to be followers of Jesus in their time and place. In many cases, they let their light shine before others, and in some cases they lost their lives because of it.

Today, with the gift of the Scriptures and the witness of those who have come before us, we have the challenge of figuring out what it means to be followers of Jesus in our time and place as well. And our context is Canada in 2014… not Canada in 1954, or Canada in 1914. We live in the post-Christendom era in the Western world, in a culturally diverse community and a religiously pluralistic society.

The recently proposed Bill 60 in Quebec – the so-called “Charter of Values” – demonstrates how extremely difficult it can be for majority groups to make space for religious and cultural “others” who come to live side-by-side with them in Canadian communities. Particularly when those other groups grow and flourish, we have a tendency to get scared and try to suppress them.

The Charter tries to do this by claiming that Quebec society is a secular space, and therefore all people (no matter what their religious commitments may be) are required to set aside their faith (including any visible symbols of that faith) and to share the same secular values as everyone else.

Well, no matter what you may think about whether Canadian public servants should be allowed to wear turbans, or hijabs, or large crosses when they go to work each day, I don’t think we can possibly agree to the idea that people of faith should be required to leave our faith at home when we go out into the world to work, learn, serve, and participate in the public sphere.

When Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world…” he couldn’t possibly have meant that we should keep our religious lives to ourselves inside our homes and worshipping communities. Undoubtedly, Jesus wanted his listeners to know that as God’s people we are FOR the world. We are salt, we are light, we have a mission and a purpose to fulfill that will impact others. It’s who we are, and it’s who we are meant to be.

As today’s text from Isaiah points out, the religion that God calls us to is not private. It is not a religion that is focused on ourselves and serving our own interests. Its purpose cannot be solely for our own salvation, protection, or fulfillment. Challenging such a self-centred faith, the prophet exclaimed, “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.”

In contrast, an authentic faith in God must lead us to justice in our communities. It must prompt us to share our bread with the hungry. It must guide us to living our lives for others so that our religious acts are not just the prayers and rituals of our traditions, but even the very acts of sharing our bread with the hungry and clothing the naked, and all such acts of kindness, justice, and love become our religious rituals.

Archbishop William Temple once said, “The church is the only organization on earth that exists for those who are not its members.” So if we have to keep our faith locked up inside our churches and homes, we completely lose the point of what it means to be the church. What it means to be Christians is to be salt for the earth and light for the world.

The proposed Charter of Values in Quebec is a particularly troubling development, and the Presbytery of Montreal has written a very helpful response to Bill 60 with a very clear call that the bill be withdrawn or voted down. You can find the Presbytery’s letter on the website of The Presbyterian Church in Canada, or I can print a copy for you if you like.

I think the response of the Presbytery of Montreal to Bill 60 is a good example of what it means to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Unlike the Pharisaic strategy, Presbyterians in Quebec are not content to withdraw into a religious ghetto. Even if they are small in numbers, and probably have very little power or influence over the Quebec legislative assembly, they are determined to engage in the discussion and dialogue for the good of the whole society.

Unlike the usual pattern of the Sadducees, Presbyterians in Quebec are not willing to collaborate with the powers-that-be in order to gain power, influence, standing, or special privileges in society. While remaining polite and respectful, the Presbytery’s letter boldly challenges the government’s bill, and demands a new course of action.

And unlike the Zealots in Jesus’ time, Presbyterians in Quebec are not getting swept away by anger or violence against those who would oppress all people who hold religious convictions of any kind. Instead of starting a fight, the Presbytery’s response shines light on the issues and acts like salt to enhance what is good, and to cleanse and clean away what is bad in the proposed bill.

Perhaps I have piqued your interest enough that you will want to read the response of the Presbytery of Montreal to the Quebec government’s proposed Charter of Values. But more important than that, I hope that this discussion has prompted you to consider how we are called to live as followers of Jesus in our context today.

As individual Christians, how can we shine light into our workplaces and flavour our community associations with the salt of God’s love? As a congregation, and together with other Christians in our city, how can we engage in civic affairs, bringing our faith into the public sphere in positive, constructive, and respectful ways within our diverse community? How can we live out a faith that is not just about our Sunday morning rituals or private devotions, but a faith that reaches out to others to promote justice and the well-being of all.

Current and potential future Saskatchewan governments are not likely to propose anything like Quebec’s Charter of Values, at least not in the near future. But right here in Saskatoon, a City Councillor has recently been sued for including a Christian prayer in a civic event for volunteers. In other words, this issue is just as relevant here as anywhere else.

And a conversation has begun, with Christian leaders along with leaders from a wide spectrum of religious traditions, who are engaged in dialogue and discussion regarding the proper place of religion in the public sphere. And my hope is that those discussions will continue and bear good fruit for the benefit of our city and all its people.

As Christians, Jesus’ example and his teaching should be our guide as we engage in these dialogues and participate in our society with all its diversity of cultures and religions. May we remember our identity as salt of the earth and light of the world, and have the courage be what God made us to be both in the church and in the community.