February 5, 2023 homily on Matthew 5:16-20 by Pastor Galen
“Religion of the Light”
In 635 AD, Persian Christian missionaries traveled 3000 miles across deserts and mountains along the Silk Road and arrived in the Chinese imperial city of Xi’an. Xi’an “was a cosmopolitan city with upwards of a million residents” (Ray Riegart and Thomas Moore, eds. The Lost Sutras of Jesus: Unlocking the Ancient Wisdom of the Xian Monks). In contrast to his predecessors, the emperor, Taizong, was quite open-minded when it came to religion, opening the doors to missionaries of various religions, including Christian.
The story of these early Christian missionaries in China is quite fascinating. But what I find most compelling, in relation to our Scriptural texts this morning, is that the Chinese emperor, who became a great admirer of Christianity, referred to Christianity as the “Luminous Religion,” or, the “Religion of the Light.” In an official declaration, he wrote, “Reveal the splendor and brightness of heaven; glorify the Religion of Light saints; and let the benevolent teachings illuminate this realm of existence” (Text from the Xi’an Stele as quoted in Martin Palmer, The Jesus Sutras; Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity).
“Let the benevolent teachings illuminate this realm of existence.” It should be little wonder that “Religion of the Light” was the name used to describe the Christian faith. The first words spoken by God in Genesis chapter 1 were “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3). The nation of Israel was called to be a “light to the nations” (see Isaiah 49:6). Most importantly, Jesus referred to himself as the “light of the world” (John 8:12). And here in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said to his listeners, “You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:14).
The Light of the World
I find it interesting that Jesus did not say, “You should aspire to become the light of the world.” Or, “if you do the right things, you will be the light of the world.” Rather, he said that we are the light of the world. Just like God said “let there be light” and there was light, so too Jesus has declared that we are the light of the world.
The question, according to Jesus, is whether or not we will let our light shine, or will we hide the light under a basket so that only we can benefit from the light? Will we illuminate our surroundings, or will we keep the truth that we have come to know to ourselves?
You see, if I cover up a lightbulb with a dark piece of fabric, it still shines, but it doesn’t do anyone any good. The purpose of a lightbulb is to help us see by illuminating the things around it. As a photography major in college, I learned that we don’t really “see” most objects. Unless an object emanates light, then what we “see” is the light from a light source reflecting off of the object.
Let Your Light Shine
In a similar fashion, when Jesus says that we are to “let our light shine,” the purpose is not for people to see us, but rather so that they can “see our good works” and give glory to God. The end goal is for people to glorify and worship God, not us.
Here Jesus is assuming that as followers of Christ we will do good works. That is a large part of what it means to follow Jesus, after all. We follow Jesus by doing the things he did, and by putting his teachings into practice. The Bible tells us in the books of Acts chapter 10 that “[Jesus] went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him” (Acts 10:38). And so as Christ’s followers, we too are called to do good works, and to bring healing and freedom from oppression wherever we go. And we are called to do the things Jesus taught us, like give to those who are in need, and love our neighbors, and even to love our enemies.
Of course, Christians don’t always do good work. Often we fail to do what we’re supposed to do, or we do the exact opposite. But when we fail to do good, or when we do the wrong thing, in those times we’re not following in the footsteps of Christ. In those situations, we’re going our own way. And in those times need to repent and ask forgiveness and make restitution if possible. And we can and should ask God to help us get back on the right path. (One of the marks of a genuine Christ-follower is not perfection, but rather that we feel sorrow for our sin).
And so Jesus says that we should let our light shine so that others may see our good works, and give glory to God.
Breaking the Yoke of Oppression
Now when we let our light shine, it’s not just about being nice to people. The prophet Isaiah reminds us that it’s also about loosing the chains of injustice, breaking the yoke of oppression, and letting the oppressed go free (Isaiah 58:6). Shining our light can include shining a light on injustice – helping people see the truth about what’s happening in the world. Isaiah says that when we do this – when we loose the chains of injustice, break the yoke of oppression, and when we share our bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into our houses, and when we provide clothes for people who lack the basic necessities of life, “then [our] light shall break forth like the dawn,” (Isaiah 58:8a). (Yet another reference to light – no wonder the 7th century Chinese emperor referred to Christianity as the “religion of the light”!)
But again, it’s interesting that Jesus assumes his followers will do these things. This is all part of what it means to follow Jesus. Not that people who claim to follow Jesus always do these things – we have plenty of examples of supposed Christ-followers who do the exact opposite. But this is in fact what it looks like when we do indeed follow Christ’s example.
Jesus’s point here is that we should not keep our good deeds and works of justice a secret. This may seem strange to those of us who have been taught that in order to be humble, our good deeds should be done in secret. And it is true that we should not do good deeds in order to bring glory to ourselves. But, if people never see Christ’s followers working for good in the world, and they never see us working for justice and freedom from oppression, then how will they know that God cares about those things too?
In fact, so often what the world sees is the exact opposite. They see and hear about people in Christian leadership roles who take advantage of others or abuse their power. They hear about church leaders who swindle people of their tithes and offerings, or who are mean to others. In fact, so often the word “Christian” is associated in our culture with homophobia, and sexism and racism (to the point where when my wife’s students found out that she was a Christian, they immediately asked her if she was homophobic!)
So Jesus is saying that we should let our good deeds be seen by others. The world needs to see and know that Christ’s followers are working to bring an end to injustice. They need to know that Christians care about caring for the environment, and are working for equity and equility, and working to end sexism and racism and homophobia. They need to see us caring for the poor and feeding the hungry, and providing clothes to those who are in need.
This is one reason why, any time I talk about our church, I generally mention our Food Pantry. And it’s why often on our church sign board, and in our bulletins, we make some mention of not just our worship gatherings, but also the services we provide to the community. It’s not only so that those who are in need will know where they can come to receive food or services – but also so that those around in the community who may be observing us and trying to figure out what Christians are all about can “see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father in heaven.”
And so, when you talk about our church, and invite people to come visit our church – don’t only mention our worship gatherings or Bible studies. Talk about the ways we are actively serving in the community, and invite them to join us! One of the things I found when I was doing campus ministry is that there were a lot of students who were reluctant to come to one of our worship gatherings or Bible studies, but they were excited to join us when we did community service or justice campaigns. When they joined in with us on those projects, they were left with a very different image of Christians, and it led them to give glory to God.
Salt of the Earth
Now, there’s another image in addition to light that Jesus mentions in these verses, and I would be remiss if I didn’t touch on this. To be honest, at first I wasn’t very excited to preach on this passage, because I’ve heard this passage preached on so many times, and I really didn’t think there was anything new I could say about it that hasn’t already been said. But in my preparation and study of this passage this week, I came across an interpretation of this passage that I’ve never even heard of before.
You see, a lot of ink has been spilled trying to determine what exactly Jesus meant when he referred to his followers as the “salt of the earth.” The imagery of light is a lot easier to grasp. But salt? What did Jesus mean?
Well, we mostly use salt to flavor our food. And before modern freezers and refrigerators salt was used as a preservative. But there was another use for salt in Bible times, and that was as fertilizer. Yes, fertilizer! In a 2016 article in Christianity Today, Anthony Bradley argued that “According to specialists in environmental science and soil chemistry, salt has been a major method of fertilizing soil for centuries.” Now it wasn’t the same salt that we would use today in our kitchen, but rather “The salts in Jesus’ day were mixtures of chlorides of sodium, magnesium, and potassium, with very small amounts of calcium sulfate (gypsum). Some of these would dissolve more quickly than others, while some were better able to withstand the elements. These hardier, “saltier” salts were generally more valuable in an agricultural context because that meant their benefits would last longer.”
When Jesus talked about salt losing its “saltiness” or “savor,” it refers to a process in which the compounds of salts naturally disintegrate over time. Disintegrated salt loses a small amount of gypsum, which changes its “saltiness.” This change in saltiness makes it a less effective fertilizing agent. So when Jesus talked to his followers about losing their saltiness, he was talking about losing their fertilizing properties, their ability to bring about life and growth.
And so, as Christians, we are not just to do good deeds, but we are also to stimulate growth in the world. We are not called to remain separate, huddled in our own little groups, but rather we are to be out there into the world, working for good, bringing God’s life and hope and truth wherever we go – so that others may see and glorify God.
So, let us let our lights shine, and let us be salt – bringing life to the world. Remember this is not who we are to aspire to be. It’s who we already are! It’s who God has declared us to be. As Christ’s followers, we are light, and we are salt. Let us not hide that light, let’s not lose our saltiness – but instead, let’s let our shine so that others may see our good deeds, and give glory to God.