In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus uses two everyday analogies to describe the action of God’s people in the world: salt and light. Christians often attach a ‘salt and light’ label rather freely on different initiatives, but I have been discovering that a closer study of Matthew 5:13-16 yields some wonderful insights into a comprehensive strategy for social engagement, for individual believers and for local churches alike.
From the context of the verses immediately preceding this passage (and the NIV paragraph headings are so unhelpful in the way they break up the text artificially), we see that Jesus puts the church squarely in the stream of the prophets. The calling of the prophet was to demonstrate what it was like to walk in God’s ways and to call the people to follow and obey the one true God. The church is to do likewise – but Jesus has more to say about how that should happen.
Coming to the two analogies, in first century Palestine salt had three primary functions: to preserve fresh meat and fish; to add flavour and nutrition to food; and as an antiseptic on wounds. These were so important that salt was frequently used as a form of currency (which is where our word salary comes from). If Jesus called his disciples ‘the salt of the earth’, it suggests he intended that they should have similar functions as physical salt, but in the social sphere. This meant preventing or at least slowing down moral decay and corruption; affirming what is good, beautiful and true; and bringing reconciliation and peace to broken relationships.
Jesus immediately warned of the dangers of salt ‘losing its saltiness’. Now physical salt is only effective when it’s in direct physical contact with the material it is intended to change. So followers of Jesus can only be ‘salty’ if they are fully engaged in the institutions of society around them. Withdrawing from politics, business, the arts or any other cultural endeavour because they are corrupt or sinful is one way that the Church loses its saltiness. The other is when Christians become so accommodated to the values of those institutions that they become indistinguishable from what they are called to change.
The second metaphor – light – is at two levels. First Jesus said ‘a city on a hill cannot be hidden’. The cluster of lights from all the dwellings in a town would have been a welcome sight to travellers at night. So too the gathered witness of God’s people – the church – shines out through all manner of good deeds. At the household level, Jesus spoke of a lamp on a stand, giving light to a single room. This would suggest that in the home or the workshop – in the domestic and neighbourhood context – followers of Jesus would brighten up the lives of those they welcomed or encountered daily through acts of love and service.
How might this become a strategy for long term social transformation? The lamp on a stand represents the simple but transformative work of providing hospitality – something which almost every Christian can do. The city on a hill represents the corporate witness of local churches and Christian organisations, expressed in prayer, evangelism, compassion and social action. So the church shining as light should lead to the gradual transformation of our streets and neighbourhoods.
Salt, on the other hand, represents the witness of individual believers through their work and public influence – but that won’t be overseen or managed by the local church. Individual doesn’t mean lone ranger, as Christians should team up to bring change to the workplaces or organisations of which they are a part. However they will be acting as individual members of the body of Christ. So the consequence of Christians being salt will be the gradual transformation of institutions.
So in these two simple pictures, Jesus is suggesting a deep and wide vision for how to change the world: individually and corporately, in the home and the workplace, through resisting the effects of sin and affirming all that is good, building community and bringing reconciliation, being both creators and guardians of culture. Salt and light may be everyday themes, but Jesus turns them into a life-transforming vision and calling!
This article was first published on the front page of our Engage Newsletter (October 2017). Engage is a quarterly publication featuring news and comment from the Jubilee Centre.