“I was sitting in a barber chair when I became aware that a powerful personality had entered the room. A man had come quietly in upon the same errand as myself to have his hair cut and sat in the chair next to me. Every word the man uttered, though it was not in the least didactic, showed a personal interest in the man who was serving him. And before I got through with what was being done to me I was aware I had attended an evangelistic service, because Mr, D. L. Moody was in that chair. I purposely lingered in the room after he had left and noted the singular affect that his visit had brought upon the barber shop. They talked in undertones. They did not know his name, but they knew something had elevated their thoughts, and I felt that I left that place as I should have left a place of worship.” Who said that? Woodrow Wilson, the former President of the United States.
Think about that for a moment. A hairdressers became a place of worship. I had my haircut yesterday as well. It would however be entirely presumptuous of me to suggest that I made the same impact, not least because I was the only one in the barber’s shop. I did however observe that despite not having seen that particular hairdresser for three months, she nevertheless remembered me and wanted to know more about our work with refugees and asylum seekers in Southampton. It reminded me that we should never underestimate the influence we may have, even in the little things, because we are always being watched and never off duty.
Have you ever imagined a hairdressers as a place of worship? How about a newsagents, florists, butchers, supermarket? Could these also be places of worship? Impossible? Absurd? In our gospel reading today, Jesus insists:
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. 14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:13-16)
Where are we to be light and salt? Why are we to be light and salt? Let look for answers in our gospel reading under three headings:
The Problem: Darkness
The Panacea: Light
The Purpose: Glory
1. The Problem: Darkness and Decay
However beautiful and good, the Bible describes our world as dark, corrupt and dying. Our world has a dark side. At every election, our politicians compete with one another to promise a brighter, better future under their leadership but none can change human nature or improve the morals of our country. And when Christians seek to do so, they are often criticised or penalised. In many countries it is much worse. Open Doors publishes an annual World Watch List of countries where Christians are persecuted, imprisoned, executed or disappear. This should not come as a surprise. It is clear from the context of these verses.
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:10-12).
Notice Jesus didn’t say “if people insult you…” but “when… when” because persecution is inevitable. Think about it, Jesus calls us to be his peacemakers. Where are peacemakers needed? Jesus calls us to be his ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5). But where? Where do ambassadors serve? On foreign soil.
The plum position to be appointed the British Ambassador must surely be the USA, then may be Israel or France. Being appointed the British Ambassador to Afghanistan, Yemen or Palestine is hardly likely to be seen as a career promotion or a reward for public service.
And yet where are ambassadors most needed? In countries without democracy, without freedom of speech, where dictators rule by brute force, where censorship, arbitrary arrests and detention without trial are used to crush dissent.
I have been criticised for visiting some of these countries. Recently I was even censured for wearing a clerical collar while meeting a leader from Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon 16 years ago. As I made clear at the time, I used the opportunity to intercede for the release of Israeli soldiers held captive after Israel had invaded and then withdrawn from Southern Lebanon. When asked “What do you advise Hezbollah?” I said, “Release the Israeli soldiers. You worship a compassionate merciful God. Show compassion and mercy. Do not trade them like animals for Lebanese prisoners. Release them unconditionally and challenge the Israelis to reciprocate.”
It seems my critics cared more about my attire than my actions. They clearly had not consulted any Bishop in the Middle East either. Bishop Riah Abu El Assal, who was responsible for my ministry in Lebanon at the time said “we insist clergy wear clerical attire at all times in public… it is also imperative they do so in any of the Middle East’s conflict zones such as Southern Lebanon. I would regard it as foolish and ‘conduct unbecoming’ not to do so.” That is why I make no apology for where I go, who I meet, what I say or indeed what I wear. The Problem: Darkness and Decay.
2. The Panacea: A Community of Life and Light
“You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:13-14)
In both verse 13 and verse 14 the pronoun ‘you’ is emphatic. The idea is, “You are the only salt of the earth” and “You are the only light of the world.” The world’s decay will not be retarded or its darkness dispelled unless God’s people act like salt and light. The very ones who are despised and persecuted by the world are ironically the world’s only hope.
You are the Salt of the Earth
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” (Matthew 5:13)
Salt has always been valuable in history, often much more so than it is today. In ancient Greece it was called theon, which means divine. The Romans held that, except for the sun, nothing was more valuable than salt. Often Roman soldiers were paid in salt, and it was from that practice that the expression “not worth his salt” originated. Some think Jesus is emphasizing the purity of salt, or the flavour of salt, or the preserving nature of salt. Each has some merit and you can find verses that stress our role in these ways. But none of them actually fits the wording of the text or the context of what Jesus says about salt in the Gospels.
It took the idle listening to a BBC Radio Gardeners Question Time to spark off new insights into this expression “Salt of the earth”. One of the experts was asked about how it was possible to increase productivity without the use of lots of chemicals. In answer he explained that during the 2nd World War, when potassium fertilisers were in short supply, farmers resorted to an old technique. They used salt as a fertiliser. An old technique? Stimulating fertiliser? Surely salt in water or the soil will kill plants?
Let me quote to you J.M. Wilson, a leading Victorian horticultural authority, writing in “The Farmers Dictionary of Agriculture”, dated 1850. Citing Cato, Virgil and Pliney, Wilson asserted, “The value of salt in small quantities, as a manure, appears to have been well known in ancient times… in the 1820’s, avant garde Scottish and English farmers “by means of enlightened experiment and patient recommendation, eventually brought it back into general favour.”
So there you have it. The text itself suggests this is precisely what Jesus meant. Jesus says “you are the salt of, or for, the earth”. The word for ‘earth’ means land, ground, soil. In the parallel passage in Luke 14 Jesus says that salt which has lost its saltiness is “fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile”. (Luke 14:34).
By implication then salty salt is fit for what? the soil and the manure pile. We are therefore dealing here primarily with an analogy of compost, not meat, with growth not decay, with life not death, with stimulation not preservation. Jesus came not to keep the world from going rotten but to resurrect it.
Notice Jesus says, “you are the salt of the earth.” Jesus addresses his disciples not with an imperative but an indicative. He does not say “Be salt and light”, but “you already are” Nor does He say, “you will be”, or “may be”, or “can be” or “hope to be”, but “you are…you are the salt of the earth, by virtue of being my disciples.”
Be the person God made you – model your life on Him and you will be the salt of the earth. Jesus reinforces this analogy with another.
You are the light of the world
Whereas salt is hidden, light is obvious. Salt works secretly, while light works openly. In John 8:12, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world,” If Jesus is the light of the world, how can we be the light of the world as well? In his place, we reflect the light of Christ.
“Children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life” (Philippians 2:15-16)
A secret Christian is as incongruous as a hidden light.
The Problem: Darkness and Decay.
The Panacea: A Community of Life and Light
3. The Purpose: to Glorify God and Make Him Known
“In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
The word (kalos) for good Jesus uses here does not so much emphasize quality but rather attractiveness and beauty. Letting our light shine allows others to see the beautiful thing that God is doing in us, transforming us to become like Jesus.
This is not something we can create or make up, but simply something we allow the Lord to do through us. It is God’s light; our choice is whether to hide it or let it shine.
The Problem: Darkness and Decay.
The Panacea: A Community of Life and Light
The Purpose: to Glorify God and Make Him Known
Application time…Here is your assignment.
I invite you to write your obituary. It is not as morbid as you might think. Why leave such important matters to someone else to write? It is not about dying but about living. Ask yourself, ‘What is my purpose in life? What has God called me to be and to do? What do I want to be known for?’ Jesus has called you to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world. Let him help you become the person he intends you to be. And if you don’t like where your priorities or values are leading you, change them. Change them today. You can. Let me close by telling you about someone who did just that.
Alfred bought a newspaper to read his brothers obituary. He was shocked to discover that a dreadful error had been made. The paper had confused their names and the obituary he was reading was his own. According to Wikipedia, Alfred was a Swedish chemist, engineer, inventor and businessman. He made several important contributions to science, holding 355 patents in his lifetime. Alfred’s most famous invention was dynamite, a safer and easier means of harnessing the explosive power of nitroglycerin; which was patented in 1867. As a result he became very, very wealthy.
His premature obituary described the terrible death and destruction this powerful force had brought into the world. Nobel was devastated. He wanted instead to be known as a man of “peace.” He realised that if his obituary was to be rewritten, he would have to do it himself by changing his priorities. So Alfred Nobel did just that. He bequeathed his fortune to establish the Nobel Prize. As a result he is better known for his contribution to peace not war.
What will you be known for? What would you like to be known for? Then start today.
Recommended Commentaries and Study Resources:
John Stott’s The Sermon on the Mount (IVP)
Helmut Thielicke’s Life Can Begin Again (James Clarke)
John Stott, The Beatitudes: Developing Spiritual Character (IVP)
Max Lucado, The Applause of Heaven (Thomas Nelson)
Questions for personal reflection or group Bible study
- In what ways do you (individually and in community) intentionally behave as the salt of the earth?
- What makes us less ‘salty’?
- In what ways might you have a greater effect in your community?
- In what ways are you (individually and in community) the light of the world?
- What things prevent your light from being seen?
- Think of practical ways in which you could ‘shine’ more brightly.
- Resolve to act on your answers during this coming week.
If you have been blessed by this message and would like to help me provide more, please consider making a contribution to our charity, Peacemaker Trust. You can do so here: https://peacemakers.ngo/give/
“The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For Scripture says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.” (1 Timothy 5:17-18)