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What Does It Mean to Be Salt and Light?

Few other passages are as instrumental in shaping my personal understanding of Christian witness as Matthew 5:13-16, which calls Christians to be salt and light through their good deeds.
Jesus’ seemingly simple statement in Matthew 5:13 has long mystified readers. What does it actually mean to be the salt of the earth?

When you think about it at its most basic, salt has a powerful, distinctive and at times overwhelming taste to it.

Salt had long been a metaphor for covenant faithfulness. So, when God rescued the Hebrews from their slavery in Egypt, he made a covenant, a contract, setting them apart as his own holy people.

They were to be distinct from the other nations. They were to act different, look different and be different. They were to model a different way to live, neither as slave nor slave driver, defined by love for God and love of neighbor.

This is what Jesus is telling his disciples. They are to offer a new way to be human that is not conformed to the destructive, violent and sinful patterns of this world.

We are to be a community defined by self-sacrificial love modeled upon the cross of our messiah.

We are to be salt. Yet, what happens when salt loses its saltiness? It loses its distinctiveness and purpose for being.

We may construct as many colossal monuments to our own sectarian self-importance upon as many hills as we like, but if we in no way stand distinct from the destructive patterns of this world, then what’s the point?

We might as well keep our mouths shut and our witness to ourselves because our faith “is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

Yet at the time of Jesus, many contemporaneous religious groups began to take the idea of being salt to the extremes, with some groups completely withdrawing from society.

They were distinct or “holy.” But as Jesus makes clear, they were “holy” to the point of worthlessness.

So, Jesus says in Matthew 5:14-15: “You are the light of the world. A city 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.” 

Imagine the sublime power of a single candle piercing, shattering the darkness of a pitch-black room. Yet if you cover the candle up, it goes dim. What’s the point?

Sometimes religious people get so focused on holiness, on separateness, that we no longer have a viable, credible witness for our communities or the world.

We become so fearful of that which is different, of that which doesn’t have a “Christian” label on it, or of that which isn’t securely within our “Christian” neighborhoods and behind our “Christian” walls.

We construct defenses, both ideological and concrete, to safeguard us from God’s beautiful world and the beautiful people living within it, beautiful people we have conditioned ourselves to fear and, at times, even hate.

As the followers of Jesus, we are to be the light of the world. So, we must not fear “the dark.”

It is imperative for us to tear down the walls, to cross the barriers and to be present and active in our neighborhoods and cities.

Having been washed clean once and for all by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have no need to fear being “contaminated” by the so-called “uncleanness” of our world.

We are called to fully embrace the other – those not like us – in love.

To be the light of the world is not to condemn, withdraw or shy away from the world, but to actively pursue the dark places, to willingly enter into places of pain, poverty, injustice, sickness, violence and sin.

We do this in imitation of Christ in order to bring the light, love, justice and peace of God to those people and places where it is needed the most. As followers of Jesus, this is our mission. This is our witness.

Finally, in Matthew 5:16, Jesus states: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Most simply, we are to hear the words of Jesus and put them into practice. We are to imitate Jesus, such that when we hear his words and put them into practice, people will see our good deeds and give glory to our Father in heaven.

Our salt, therefore, stays salty only so long as we practice the good deeds we do in imitation of Christ – shining the light of God in and among our community and before the watching world.

Jesse Wheeler is projects manager at the Institute of Middle East Studies, based in Mansourieh, Lebanon, at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary. A longer version of this article first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission. You can follow IMES on Twitter @IMESLebanon.