The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 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. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”Matthew 5:13-30
It is a dreary summer day as two battle lines are drawn. Tension hangs in the air as the overcast sky blocks out the sweltering heat. The two armies meet in a park, one side, clad in white bearing red crosses, shields, signs, and torches, form a thin line into a crude shield wall as they imagine their Viking ancestors would have. Though they are outnumbered, they are organized, they have the high ground, they are angry, and they are ready to defend what they believe is their champion: an old marble statue of a bearded man on a horse. The multitude that opposes them has no uniform, no shields, it is a rag-tag collection of people from all walks of life, bearing a rainbow of colors. Some on the front line form up, holding hands and crossing arms, while the rest mill about in the street behind them. This army is disorganized, but gathered for a single purpose; though disorganized and diverse, they are remarkably loyal to their comrades, even the strangers among them. As the lines form the army in white begins to hurl insults at their enemy, cursing them, and chanting “you will not replace us”. The multitude begins to grow nervous, they had planned to stand their ground silently, stoically resisting any attack hurled against them, but their army is mostly rookies, while their courage is firm, their composure is failing. The temptation to fight rises, and the mood is darkening as the sun is enveloped by the clouds. The chants from the army in white sync up, growing louder and angrier. The old veterans, realizing moral is failing, do the unthinkable: they begin to sing. It takes only a moment for the tune to spread through the ranks like wildfire. The old hymn lifts their spirit and transforms their rage into joy. They need no music, for it was written in their hearts from the earliest years, the tune so simple and enlightening it delighted their hearts as children, a message so powerful that even the most callous and weary spirit is lifted by its melody.
“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…”
The angry chant from the army in white is quickly overwhelmed by the music, they too, have known the song from their earliest days. Even their fury is subsided by the joyous noise. In time, they lower their guard, and without saying a word to their enemy or each other, they disperse. No blood was shed on that day, and in time the sun returned to Charlotte.
What happened on that day is but one example of many, of the power of that childhood tune, and the mighty spirit that gives its words power. It has transcended cultures, languages, and time, turning fear into courage, despair into resolve, and anger into joy. This Little Light of Mine has had several tunes since it first appeared in the fields and churches around the turn of the twentieth century, but the most enduring we know and love today was written in the 40’s by a schoolteacher, Harry Dixon Loes. It has been described as an “anointed” song, something blessed, its influence and enduring power unexplained by academics. Equally mysterious to the men and women of Athens is the author of the song. Yet its origins are plainly seen, the words first coming together millennia ago on Mt. Olives outside of Jerusalem.
Jesus’ sermon on the mount is the origins of the song, it arrives at the turning point of the sermon; where to crowd a of curious onlookers, enemies, and His disciples, Jesus uses two metaphors to tell the people that God’s kingdom has arrived, and to prepare them for their mission.
The first metaphor He uses is the equally iconic phrase, “you are the salt of the earth” to describe not only the people, but their mission. Salt is a well-documented precious commodity in the ancient world. Workers being paid in measures of salt is where we get the term “salary” from. Salt’s preservative properties were so prized it was thought to have the power to ward off evil spirits. Which, incidentally, is why for centuries, we would place salt on the tongues of infants before baptizing them, to exorcise them of any evil of in their hearts. Though unlike modern salt, which is refined to its purest state, ancient salt was mined and full of other minerals. Because of this lack of purity, with ambient humidity, neglect, or improper storage, it could lose its taste and preservative properties, which is why Jesus expands the metaphor to include a warning, the work of the Spirit is immanent, if neglected, those who are the salt of the earth become inert. Jesus is calling his listeners the salt of the earth to commission them to fill the role of salt, to purify the earth, exorcise evil, and like a good seasoning of salt in a meal, bring out the best in all we encounter.
The metaphor of light addresses the fears of the listeners. Just like today, the first hearers of Jesus’ sermon were troubled with the state of the world. For the Israelites, His primary audience, they were faced with a persistent problem; since the time of second Isaiah, during the exile in Babylon, God has told them that He will redeem them. Not only will God restore the fortunes of His chosen people, He will herald them into the a new messianic age, a time when they will be so radiant with God’s glory they will be the “light to the nations”, leading all peoples back to God [Isaiah 49:6]. It has been nearly 500 years since their release from the Babylonians, yet the nation is still trapped under the power of larger empires, Rome merely being the most recent. Though their physical captivity in Babylon is a distant memory, spiritually they are still in exile, the fortunes of the nation not fully restored, and wondering when the promised messianic age will begin. There have been three responses to this problem, the first is that of the Zealots, a guerrilla military organization dedicated to violently overthrowing their Roman oppressors and re-establishing a national purity. The second response is made by the Sadducees, who through their surrender to Rome collaborate with the oppressors to ensure their own security and power at the expense of teachings of Torah and care for their people. The final response is from the Pharisees, who reject the violence of the Zealots, the corruption of the Sadducees, and the power of Rome by retreating within. They attempt to purify themselves of the sinful world by separating themselves from all who fail to keep their strict interpretation of Torah, insulating themselves from the world by retreating inward for the sake of self-righteousness and national purity.
Jesus rejects all these responses to the apparent darkness of the world when He preaches on the Mount. To the Zealots He tells them to love their enemies, to pray for their well-being, and show astonishing generosity [Matt. 5:43-44]. To the Sadducees He reminds them to not lose hope, that the Kingdom of God is not some-far off and distant promise, but already present [Matt. 4:23]. To the Pharisees, that the kingdom of God is not for the chosen few, but for all people [Matt. 5:15]. Jesus makes all these critiques and explains the prophecy that Israel will be the “light to the nations”, in the words that will become the foundation of This Little Light of Mine, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 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. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
Light is indiscriminate, it illuminates for all. It wards of the darkness of despair and hopelessness. It removes the shadow of deceit and shows the Truth. It bridges two worlds, existing as a particle and a wave, physical and spiritual. As hearers of the Gospel, of Jesus’ sermon, we are called to be the light, to let the power of God and the Good News radiate from our lives and illuminate the way for others.
How can we let our light shine in a world full of darkness? How can we purify ourselves to keep from losing our saltiness? Should we rebel against the world, violently rejecting any threat to our purity? Should we give into despair, collaborating with the very evil that holds us captive? Should we isolate ourselves so that we are not sullied by those who have not yet seen the light? No! To live in any of those ways is to fail to see that God’s kingdom is here, and that God’s kingdom is still coming. The coming of God’s kingdom, the establishment of perfect justice and righteousness on the earth, is no small endeavor. It has taken and will continue to take time. After all, even a small kingdom like Rome wasn’t built in a day. While the kingdom is coming, we are to keep the light of hope alive, to be the light and the salt that brings out the goodness in all things.
In practical terms we are called to live for the highest ideals, for the best and happiness for all humanity, and to not let fear temper our vision of God’s kingdom. We are to work for the ideal first, then adjust and compromise when necessary. After all, if we think of ourselves too pure, we over-salt our good work. At the same time, even in compromise or a willingness to wait for the world to catch up to God’s vision, we can never lose the light of the kingdom. We pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven”. Now as the kingdom is coming, let your little light shine.