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This Salt is Actually Good for You

A sermon delivered by Robert Browning, Pastor, Smoke Rise Baptist Church, Stone Mountain, Ga., on February 6, 2011.
Matthew 5:13-16

“There is nothing more useful than sun or salt,” the Romans were fond of saying. Try to convince your doctor of that! From all I hear and read, these may be the two most harmful things to our health.

Today our focus is upon a portion of the Sermon on the Mount, which is the best known collection of Jesus’ teachings. This particular passage is between the Beatitudes, which affirm God’s favor upon people in certain conditions, and the demands that follow later in the Sermon. They serve to remind us who we are as disciples of Jesus Christ.

You recall that crowds gathered around Jesus because they heard of his miraculous ability to heal. The traditional site of the Sermon on the Mount is on the west side of the Sea of Galilee, not far to the south of Capernaum.

To whom is the sermon addressed? Is it the disciples only or the crowds also? The opening verses, 5:1-2, indicate that when Jesus saw the crowds, he climbed the mountain, sat down and called his disciples to him, only four at this point in Matthew. As Dr. Alan Culpepper writes, “Certainly, Matthew did not intend for his readers to see this sermon as only for those four men and not all the others who came to hear him.”

The conclusion of the Sermon seems to support Dr. Culpepper’s assumption. “The crowds were amazed at his teaching,” Matthew wrote in 7:28.

In my opinion, this makes what Jesus said in our text even more amazing. Listen as I read it.

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:13-16.

What initially captures my attention is what Jesus did not say to the crowd that day. I would not have been surprised had he said, “You will become the salt of the earth and light of the world after you are baptized, receive training or organize.”

Some of you will become the salt of the earth or light of the world, implying others will not.”

“I want you to consider becoming the salt of the earth and light of the world. Let me explain the requirements and expectations and then we’ll sit down and talk in private.”

He didn’t say these things, did he? “You are the salt of the earth and you are the light of the world,” he boldly said. What do you think he meant? I’ll tell you what I think.

I believe he was telling everyone in that crowd that he or she was valuable in God’s eyes and important to the work of the kingdom. The pronoun Jesus used that day, you, is plural, indicating he was talking to everyone there. I wonder if he repeated it several times, looking in many directions as he spoke to get his point across. I also wonder how they must have felt as his eyes met theirs and his affirming words settled on their ears.

Salt was such a valuable commodity in Jesus’ day that soldiers were often paid in salt. Our words salary and sale even come from this word.

Salt was used at that time as a preservative, for flavor and for its medicinal power. Meat had salt added to it to slow the process of spoiling. Since it was considered the purest of all elements, it was often used to clean or purify other things. No one in the first century wanted to live without salt.

Neither did they want to live without candles or access to sunlight. Palestinian homes usually consisted of one room with one or two small windows, eighteen inches or less. Candles in the home kept them from groping and stumbling in darkness and sunshine made it possible for them to grow the food they needed to sustain life.

Now you understand why the Romans said that nothing was more useful than sun or salt. Their health, safety and overall wellbeing depended upon them.

You are as valuable to God and important to His work in this world as salt and light, Jesus seemed to be saying to the crowd. I can only imagine how good this made them feel when he elevated them to a status reserved only for religious leaders and biblical scholars.

I think he was also telling the crowd assembled on that hillside that everything they did could have a positive impact upon the people around them if they let God direct them. As salt and light, they could bring healing, hope, joy and guidance to people who were struggling with life’s challenges and problems. They could inspire and motivate family members and neighbors to be better people by setting the right example.

Furthermore, they did not need to get anyone’s permission to be a positive influence or wait until someone assigned them a particular task. They just needed to seize every opportunity to do what was best and right.

Recently, my friend and pastor of the First Christian Church in Decatur, James Brewer-Calvert, shared a story with me which occurred when he was fifteen. He grew up in New York City between 3rd Avenue and 104th Street.

He awakened on a rainy Saturday morning to discover that the drains in the street had clogged and the roads and sidewalks were flooding. “This is awful,” he thought to himself as he looked out the window to the streets below. “Somebody ought to do something abut this!”

Just then, he saw two people walking in the rain through the water. They were barefoot and had their pants rolled up to their knees. One by one, they went to the drains, digging out debris and trash so the rushing water could escape. Looking more closely, he recognized the couple. They were his parents.

“I’ll never forget that experience,” he said. “This was the time I realized the “somebody who ought to do something about this” included me. It was a ‘salt and light’ moment.”

Last Monday, we celebrated the life of Janice Lawson, one of our most beloved members who passed away on January 28. Janice was a retired language-arts middle school teacher who had an immeasurable impact upon her students.

When word spread that she was nearing death due to cancer, many of her former students sent emails describing their love and appreciation for her. Let me share a few with you.

“We have people who leave footprints on our lives, who change us for the better, inspire us and who are brave no matter what life brings. You have been that person for me.”

“You have inspired all of us and taught us how to be brave.”

“For me, you epitomize Hemingway’s definition of courage: grace under pressure.”

“You have been so strong, such an example of courage, faith and love.”

“I always admired you for so many things—your wisdom, intelligence, caring heart, sense of humor, love for all, and faith. The list goes on and on. You are such a beautiful, brave and strong lady.”

“I am a better person because you were my teacher. You always understood me and believed in me and I will forever be grateful for your kindness. I am certain there will be a glass egg waiting for you in heaven. (She kept a glass egg on her desk, which was really a paper weight, and would bang it on the desk to get the class’ attention.)You are such a wonderful person. Please know what a positive difference you made in my life.”

I believe this is what Jesus had in mind when he told that crowd they were the salt of the earth and light of the world.  He knew, however, this would not be easy. Everyone would not appreciate them and follow their example. Some would even reject them and make life difficult for them, which had certainly occurred by the time Matthew wrote his gospel.

So, Jesus encouraged those listening to be bold and faithful, refusing to retreat to safe places and live in isolation. “Don’t lose your saltiness,” he said, “or hide your light under a bushel.”

Strictly speaking, salt cannot lose its flavor, but it loses its function when it is carelessly polluted by other elements. It becomes unclean and has to be thrown out when this happens.

Likewise, a candle is rendered useless when it is covered by a bowl or basket after it has been lit.

Potential is untapped, purpose is lost and needs go unmet when people don’t live out their divine mission each day as the beloved children of God they are. This is why Jesus challenged them to be bold and faithful. Too much was at stake to do otherwise.

Who is the salt and light of your life? Whose influence and support have made you the person you are? Who tended your wounds, helped you to get rid of the ugly parts of yourself, added joy to your life, made hope visible and led you out of the darkness and into the light? Who brought the best out in you through their words of encouragement and stellar example? Have you expressed your gratitude as many of Janice’s former students did?

Who needs you to be salt and light? Who needs you to do for them what others have done for you? Who is hoping you will notice their plight and respond to their cries for help? Who is watching you to learn what is really important in life?

What do you need in order to be a positive influence upon them? Do you need to make changes in your own life, getting rid of those things that have compromised your witness? Do you need courage to quit hiding your light under a bushel? Do you need to be more sensitive to those around you who are struggling? Do you need to listen to the Holy Spirit and follow your heart? 

Where is it most difficult for you to be salt and light? Chances are this is the very place your influence is needed the most. Ask God to help you go there.