The Gospel assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary for the 5th Sunday after Epiphany is Matthew 5:13-20. As often happens when one takes a chunk of the Sermon on the Mount, it is not really one text.
There are three distinct units here. The first two (on being salt and being light) go together thematically. It is tempting to read the third one (on the law) as if it pointed backward to the stuff about salt and light, but it clearly points forward to what follows in the next portion of chapter 5 where specific commandments are the topic.
Verse 13 is a unit:
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.” (Matthew 5:13 NRSV)
This would be a great verse on which to practice classic lectio divina.
The process starts with study. Figuring out what “salt” is all about is definitely worth some exploration.
- Salt was long used, especially prior to refrigeration, to preserve meat and fish. No salt, and your net full fo fish or the big game you brought down will quickly turn rancid. Pack it in salt and you can keep it for a very long time, a resource to sustain you when fresh food is scarce.
- Salt, I’m told, has been a very precious commodity, traded almost like money. You need to work hard to be “worth your salt.”
- Salt has an important role in your body’s processes like hydration and blood pressure. You need enough salt in your diet to keep everything working properly.
- And salt is crucial in cooking, bringing out flavors, as well as affecting whether the textures and colors of food are appealing. That dark chocolate with crunchy sea salt crystals is awesome.
- Salt, however, can have a terrible effect in excess. Salt the ground and you can’t grow crops. Too much salt in your diet and you risk high blood pressure. Over-salt your food and you can hardly swallow it.
The second step of classic lectio divina is a time of meditation on the text, repeating it over and over like a cow chewing her cud.
As you repeat and repeat a text, you almost can’t help thinking of ways it relates to your life.
- If followers of Christ are salt, how is it that our presence helps preserve the world?
- If we are salt, how is it that we are of value, a precious commodity?
- If we are salt, how is it that we affect the health of the larger Body?
- If we are salt, how is it that we bring out the flavor, improve texture and color wherever we are found?
- (And if we Christians are salt, is it possible that in too concentrated a form we are sometimes a bit obnoxious?)
It’s all worth considering in our meditation.
The next steps of classical lectio divina are to pray about the connections between the text and our lives, and finally to enter into contemplation, waiting for God’s faithful answer. (I’ll leave those parts to you.)
Jesus’ message about light has two parts. The first is the emphatic message that the light cannot, and ought not, be hidden.
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.” (Matthew 5:14-15 NRSV)
The whole point of light is to shine, all through the house, or all through the land.
Usefulness is crucial. Setting light on a lampstand makes it high and central. That’s what makes a lamp helpful. Only when it shines into the dark places does it benefit people. And that benefit is the point:
… it gives light to all in the house.
And this leads to Jesus’ second point. We, as light of the world are to shine in a very particular way. Here’s the key verse:
In the same way,
let your light shine before others,
they may see your good works
and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16 NRSV)
The “so that” is the key. We have to shine in a particular way: so that people give praise and thanks to God — and therefore, not to us.
We make a grave error, or we succumb to a grave temptation, when we do something in the name of Christ thinking about how it makes us look.
We are on target only if we think instead about the good effect it has.
- Does the lamp of our actions help us see better in the mirror? Or does it cause people to look at us and say “Hey, what a fantastic lamp that is!” Well then we’re doing it wrong.
- Does the lamp of our actions give light to help others in the house? Then it’s doing what a lamp is supposed to do.
Thus this part of Jesus’ words about being light make sense: We are to shine, meaning we do “good works,” but not so people think we’re noble, or cool, or kind. We aren’t supposed to get people thinking much about us at all.
We are to shine as light,
they may see your good works
and give glory to your Father in heaven.
That probably takes some careful planning. How can I make sure that when I do something good, people see it and say “Wow! Thank God! Isn’t God generous!”
It’s kind of like Jesus’ advice about charitable giving:
…when you give alms,
do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,
so that your alms may be done in secret…” (Matthew 6:3-4 NRSV)
I’m not a big fan of trying to verbally deflect every word of thanks or praise, telling people to give glory to God instead.
I think Jesus is actually suggesting that we set it up so that people don’t put their attention on us. We need them to actually see our Good works, but spontaneously give glory to God.
And that takes some strategy.
(And yes, my fellow Reformation Protestants, Jesus does come out in favor of “good works.” He’s not saying we earn our way to heaven by good deeds or virtue. But he does want us to act for genuine good in the world. You know: show some love for those who are different and those who are rejected, show some generosity in feeding and healing those in need, welcome the foreigners — these kinds of things that Christ did would certainly count as good works.)
I’ve gone on long enough for one day. Jesus’ statements that he came to fulfill the law, not to abolish it, and that his support goes to those who do and teach “these commandments” refer to the discussion that follows about several particular commandments. Some of that material will be in the lectionary in coming weeks, so I’ll discuss it there.
If you want a tool to practice the steps of classic lectio divina on the Gospel of Matthew check out my new book, the Illuminate-Your-Own Gospel of Matthew. It gives you one passage for each two-page spread, with tons of blank space to study, question, draw, or pray. Pick up a copy today on Amazon!