July 15th Sermon On The Mount: Let Your Light Shine

Note:  There is a new video posted on Facebook.  It is a recording of the Second half of this last Sunday’s “parking lot” worship service with picture of flowers at the nearby arboretum.  The recording ends with car horns being honked as a sort of “Amen” at the end of the benediction.  The link is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IQl5KnBdx7k  

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

Now that we are done with the list of blessed people (which is often called the beatitudes), we progress further into the Sermon on the Mount.  The next few verses are about the problems of suppressing or hiding your identity (as an individual or as part of a group).

Matthew 5:13-16

[Jesus said] “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

The verse about salt is usually taken literally, but while salt can be made impure and unusable it never loses its saltiness.  Salt is a simple chemical product with an intrinsic flavor.  So, to understand the text, it might be good to exchange the word salt to see what is communicated.

Here are three examples of the same verse with other substances standing in for salt:

“You are the bread of the earth. But if the bread loses its bread-iness, how can it be made into bread again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

“You are the iron of the earth. But if the iron loses its iron-ness, how can it be made iron again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

“You are the fresh fruit of the earth. But if the fruit ceases to be fresh, how can it be made fresh again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

Why does Jesus use “salt” as his image?  Because salt was valuable and hard to come by.  It could be made by evaporating large amounts of sea water on metal or ceramic pans, or (more dangerously) it could be mined in some locations.   This little parable might be understood better by us by thinking of burning a stack of paper money.  After the paper has lost its quality of being money, as a pile of ashes, how do we restore value to it.

The expression “salt of the earth” came to be applied to people or groups of people known for their honesty.    This is close to the meaning Jesus was conveying.  Let’s try it out in the verse:  “You are the honest people of the earth. But if the person loses honesty, how can they become honest again?”  It feels close to the meaning but not quite right.

It might be better to say:  “You have qualities that make you special, but if you lose those qualities, how can you get them back?”

People suppress all sorts of things about themselves to avoid being noticed or rejected.  In the days that Jesus was speaking to the crowds, there was a lot of pressure in Jerusalem and other communities to act more Greek and less Jewish.  Businesspeople were already starting to make deals in “gyms” (gymnasiums) which were very Greek associations that involved a very different ethic than Jewish culture.  The center of Jewish culture was the synagogue, a place of learning, but gymnasiums were quite different than what Jewish men were usually permitted to do.

Here is a description of a first century  gymnasium from Ancient History Encyclopedia (www.ancient.eu):

“The name gymnasium (gymnasion) derives from the Greek word for nudity (gymnos) as all exercise and sports were done by the male only members in the nude. The typical sports practiced were wrestling, running, boxing, jumping, discus, and gymnastics. Many would have been accompanied by rhythmic music. Sports useful for warfare included archery, javelin, armed combat, and using catapults. Sports were supervised by a trainer or paidotribe, perhaps an older athlete who had gained experience at the great Games of Greece. An aleiptes was responsible for oiling and massaging members. Each year a competition might be held too, the Hermaia, where members of the gymnasium participated in a torch race and competed in three categories of events: vigor, discipline, and endurance.”

So, many prominent Jewish men were losing their identity as Jews.  Places like the Greek gymnasiums and Roman Baths were also places where people were educated in Greek and Roman philosophy.  One of the more common philosophies of the time was called Stoicism,  which focused on suppressing human reactions to pleasure and pain.

People were being encouraged to hide their faith and hide the talents and insights that God had given them.  The meaning of what Jesus is saying is made clear by the following verses about “letting your light shine.”

Here is the passage once again;

Matthew 5:13-16

[Jesus said] “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

In this illustration, the purpose of a lamp is to shine.  If the purpose of the lamp is to bring light then you do not hide it or suppress it under a basket.  Instead you put the lamp in the place where its light can be most effective.  The identity or use of the lamp is all about the light it sheds.  You might find a beautiful lamp in a museum that hasn’t been lit for hundreds of years, but most lamps are discarded if they can no longer bring light.

Jesus is telling us to let our light shine.  We should do what we are made to do.  Part of our identity is spiritual so we need to nurture that spirit and let it shine.  Each of us have been given specific talents that should not be suppressed or hidden.  If your talent is to teach, you should teach.  If your talent is to listen, you should listen.  If your talent is to build, you should build.  If your talent is to tell stories, you should tell stories.

Of course, there are some talents that must be used with self-control and with a sense of decency.  A person with a gift of public speech should speak, but only what is beneficial to others.  A clever or cunning person might become a lawyer or businessperson but is still required to use their cleverness for the common good.  A person may have exemplary talents as a soldier, but they better use those talents in defense of what is morally right.

The basic gift that God has given you is life.  What you do with your life is largely up to you.  If you suppress your talents and insights and other gifts, you lose your identity.  If your family or group suppresses itself too much, it will lose itself.

Of course, the world contains threats and we have to be mindful of our safety as we reveal our identity, but we should also look for people who will welcome who we are and what we do.  Church, for instance, should be one of those safe places.

Jesus said that “you are the light of the world.”  Without light, there is darkness.

As you carry your faith and your good use of your gifts, the message is simple: Let your light shine!

A Question to Ponder:  When have you felt compelled or pressured to hide your personality, talents or faith?

Blessings,

Pastor Rick