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Friday, October 26, 2012

Salt and High Standards

Previously, we saw how Jesus starts out the Sermon on the Mount with a message of encouragement to those most vulnerable. In the next section, he talks about Christians' role in the world and his own purpose.

Read it here: Matthew 5:13-20

"You are the salt of the earth."

Image source.

Salt- what does this symbolize? Well, you need it, and if you don't have it, food tastes bland. But to Jesus' original audience, salt meant a lot more than just flavor.

Wikipedia's History of salt page says that salt was INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT in ancient times because it was used to preserve food. Also it was very valuable- there are accounts of Roman soldiers being paid in salt. (This is where we get the terms "salary" and "he's worth his salt".)

So when Jesus says Christians are "the salt of the earth", we can understand it in 3 ways:
  1. Flavor- Christians add something good and interesting to the world/culture.
  2. Preservative- We need to preserve what is good in the world.
  3. Value- Our influence on culture is super-important.
I pray that I can be like that. That I can contribute something good to the world, that I can be a good friend and somehow make a positive influence on the world in general.

Because that's kind of totally not what Christians are stereotyped as. Supposedly, Christians try to live in a bubble, in our own little world with our own art and music that's not terribly high-quality. No- instead Jesus says we're adding something of value to the world- something that can be appreciated by everyone, regardless of whether they're Christian.

For the "preservative" part- You could interpret it as "preserving the morals of our culture". Definitely. But I feel like "morals" often means "defining who is not allowed to have sex with whom". It should mean much more than that. How about things like love, and helping people, and being a peacemaker? Let's preserve those morals too.

Not sure what Jesus means in this bit about "if the salt loses its saltiness" and how "it is thrown out and trampled by men." Perhaps Jesus is the one who came up with the concept of throwing salt all over the roads when it snows.

He had a bad experience with snow. Image source.

"You are the light of the world."

Same idea here, about being a positive influence on the world, and something that is NEEDED.

Also, light is associated with being able to see clearly. Jesus says "Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." Being a "light" means that you are helping people "see" God.

I remember growing up in the church, always hearing this line "people are going to ask what's so different about you, and then you can tell them about God." I wondered what, indeed, was so different- what exactly would I be doing, as a Christian, that would impress other people so much that they'd need to ask about it?

All that I could come up with is ... I don't swear.

Okay, seriously? LOL, I was so silly back then, I thought being a Christian was about NOT doing certain things- not swearing, not drinking, not having sex. Now I think being a Christian is about love. We are supposed to love others- love others even if it's not convenient, love others by sacrificing our own desires in order to help them.

Oh man. That's easy to say but how in the world am I going to do it? God, I pray that I will indeed be salt and light in the world.

"But wait," you may ask, "why is Jesus saying 'you are the light of the world'? I thought Jesus is the light of the world!"

Yes. He said that too. You're allowed to use the same metaphor to mean 2 different things. Try to keep up.

Image source.
Jesus and the Law

Okay now we come to the confusing part. I'll go through it one line at a time:

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them."

All right, so far so good. Jesus is clearing up a misconception here: He's not here to say "The law was dumb. Screw it."

No, instead, he says all the law and prophets were leading up to this point, preparing the way for Jesus, and he is here to bring a conclusion, a fulfillment.

"I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished."

Uhh... okay, everything in the law is super-important, down to individual letters...? I'm not sure about this- I've been reading a lot of the Old Testament lately, and it's full of lists of names, lists of who brought what as a gift for the temple, lists of whose land was where... I would argue that there's at least one letter or stroke of a pen in there that no one would ever miss if it was gone. (Plus you have different manuscripts that differ slightly because of copying errors...)

Okay, but maybe Jesus is saying everything that's in the bible is in there for a reason. No idea what the reason is, but okay, I can believe that.

"Anyone who 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 practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven."

Wait, what? You lost me. So Jesus says we have to take EVERY SINGLE COMMAND in the Old Testament LITERALLY or else we're a terrible person?

So if I eat pork, or think that stoning disobedient children is wrong, or that women can continue functioning as members of society even when they're having their period... if I argue that the culture back then was horribly sexist and the laws in the bible reflect that, but now we're not like that so we're not going to follow them literally, but instead look at the intent behind them... Jesus thinks that's not right?

Dude, JESUS broke the commands and led others to do the same. Remember when the Pharisees gave him a hard time about healing on the Sabbath? And how he ordered a guy to get up and carry his mat, even though that's not lawful on the Sabbath? And how he defended his disciples' habit of eating without washing their hands- rather than following all the laws about cleanliness?

And wait a minute, if you break the commands and teach others to break them too, you're "least in the kingdom of heaven"? You're not kicked out of the kingdom of heaven? That seems odd.

We'll get to all these questions in a minute, but let's read the final sentence:

"For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven."

Okay, what? Throughout most of the gospels, Jesus is totally not a fan of the Pharisees and teachers of the law.

I am as confused as this dog. Image source.
What's going on here? What is Jesus talking about? He says we have to take literally every single command in the Old Testament? No way. He says we have to be the epitome of legalism, like the Pharisees?

First of all, this section serves as an introduction to the next part of the Sermon of the Mount. Jesus goes on to lay out commands about not just murder, but anger, not just adultery, but lust. He says we need to love our enemies. He says prayer, giving, and fasting are meaningless if you're just doing it to show off. He commands us not to judge.

In all of it, he sets an incredibly high standard. He goes beyond what was written in the law- but not by making it all about literally obeying all the tiny, arbitrary details. Instead, he emphasizes the intent behind the laws- his raising of standards is based in the greatest 2 commandments: love God and love people.

So perhaps the point of this next part of the Sermon on the Mount is to show us what God expects from us- and that his standard is incredibly high. Kind of a contrast with all the encouragement that we saw in the Beatitudes.

Jesus came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it- not to tell us to quit following the law because it's stupid, but to show the true intent behind the law. It's really about having a heart that loves God and loves people, as we'll see in the following weeks.

But I still don't get it!

Yes, this is all well and good, this "high standard" that's about the meaning behind the law, etc- but what about "not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the law" and "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"? Dude, Jesus IS saying that you have to literally obey all the arbitrary little details. What's with that?

Anyone have any ideas on this? My best guess is he's using hyperbole to emphasize the important role that the law has.

But still...

Summary/ take-home message:

First of all, if you are a Christian, I challenge you to pray that you would be salt and light in the world. I challenge you to pray for it every day for the next week. I'll be praying too.

Also, in this passage Jesus introduces his very high standard. The rest of his sermon gives the specifics. He fulfills the law in that he gets to the core of it- God cares most about one's heart and motives, and the real intent behind the law is to love God and love people.

Stay tuned next week, as we look at what Jesus thinks about anger and lust.

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This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: Switchin' It Up With The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12)

Next post: In which Jesus tells you to cut off your hand (Matthew 5:21-30)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.

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