Salt in an open wound
A sermon on Matthew 5:13-20 by Nathan Nettleton, 7 February 1999

The church rightly has an impact on the world, bringing out the taste of God, but it won’t come from pedantic obedience.


“You are the salt of the earth.” This is not a command or a suggestion from Jesus, it is a statement of fact. “You are the salt of the earth.” He goes on to say that we can be good salt or bad salt, but either way, we’re it - we, the people of God, are the salt of the earth. If we fail to have the effect that salt is supposed to have, that’s it, there’s no back up plan. We are the salt of the earth.

Similarly Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.” Again, we’re it. If the light is under a bucket we’re a wasted light, we’re just burning up fuel for no benefit, but we’re still the only light. We are the light of the world.

These sayings in the sermon on the mount are the link between the beatitudes - Jesus’ illustrations of the kind of characteristics God really values in people - and his discussion of the law of Israel, the beginning of which we heard read. “Do not think I have come to abolish the law, not to abolish but to fulfil.”

“You are the salt of the earth.” Eugene Peterson translates it like this:

“Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste Godliness? You've lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage. Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bring out the God-colors in the world.”

God is present and active in the world all the time. But God acts through us. The whole world is full of the presence of God, but if there are no groups dancing to God’s song, then the presence of God will go largely undetected. Just as many people can barely taste the flavours in their food unless there is some salt to bring them out, so too the Godliness of life will be almost undetectable unless we are living it out boldly.

We are the salt of the earth, the light of the world. The purpose of our life together is to bring out the flavour, the colour, the zest of life - the godliness of creation. Sometimes our saltiness will enrich the good that is always present. Sometimes it will enable the preservation of the good that might otherwise be lost. But sometimes too it will sting in the open wounds of the world, a healing sting, but painful nevertheless. If we lose our saltiness, how will anyone taste godliness? How is anyone going to see beyond the greyness, the hardness, the paralysing conformity of this society? If we do not mourn the hurts of the world, if we are not humble, merciful and pure of heart, if we do not hunger and thirst for justice and strive for peace, how will anyone see beyond the callous, winner-takes-all culture of competition?

The law alone, the written word, cannot be salt for the earth. The word must take flesh in us. As Isaiah made so clear in our first reading, when people just go by the written word they end up with just another version of death. People can fast and offer the required prayers without living a word of it. Pedantic law-keeping is not life. God is not the least bit impressed with anyone’s religious observances if they continue to live without mercy, compassion or integrity. A prayer that is not lived is a prayer that is not heard.

And yet, says Jesus, I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it. It’s just that we do not fulfil the law by counting each commandment and ticking them off religiously. We fulfil the law as we live out of the mind of Christ that is being formed in us, as we live in gratitude for God’s grace in us. By all means read the scriptures, meditate day and night on the law of the Lord, contemplate the God revealed therein. But don’t do it to memorise lists of do’s and don’ts to be frigidly executed. Do it so that the mind of Christ may be more and more formed in you and may bubble forth in joyous living, in full-flavoured passion for life and compassion for all who share the earth with you. In so doing you will be the salt of the earth, the light of the world. And in doings so you will be living out the law - your righteousness will far exceed the most nit-picking legalist - and you will be embraced as children of the Kingdom to the glory of our loving God who lives and reigns in all.