Updated: Oct 18, 2022
by Mike Bowling
Following Jesus’s baptism, his trial in the wilderness, his expression of his primary theme-- “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”-- and the calling of his first disciples, Jesus began to demonstrate kingdom wholeness through
various healings. Crowds begin to gather; they are drawn to Jesus and his healing power, but they want to understand who he is. Jesus finds an advantageous place to lay out his agenda. Finding a high place on a mountain, he begins to outline the way of God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) begin to sketch what sojourners of the kingdom can expect to experience.
The Beatitudes are followed by two surprising statements: “you are the salt of the earth” and “you are the light of the world.” It’s not surprising when Jesus claims for himself the identity of “light of the world” (John 8:12), but to identify his disciples as such is shocking. In what sense are they the light of the world? Answering the question depends on the first surprising statement and the way Jesus clarifies it: “You are the salt of the earth.”
I will spare you the multitude of examples you’ve heard concerning the use of salt as both a seasoning and a preservative, but Jesus makes the simple point that when it’s no longer salty, it’s no longer useful. When it’s no longer useful, it is subject to disposal or to be ground into dust under people’s feet. At the outset of this premiere occasion of Jesus teaching his disciples, he bluntly says “if you lose your distinct flavor, people will have no use for you as my disciples.” If the disciples retain their “saltiness” (now changing metaphors), they become light to the world.
The purpose of lights is to illuminate; Jesus’s examples seem to emphasize a collective illumination for a collective purpose. Both “light” and “lamp” are singular: the disciples are a singular light in the world; they are one lamp not many. This point becomes even more explicit when Jesus extends the example to include “a city” on a hill. The disciples in their life together are a corporate reflection of God’s illumination, or the radiance of God’s glory. Ultimately, their collective life lived among their neighbors should be visible in such a way that their day-to-day interactions (good works) with one another and with their neighbors would be seen as an accurate reflection of God.
These would have been bold new ideas for the Jewish folk of Jesus’s day, as reflected by
Matthew’s editorial comment at the end of Jesus’s teaching on the mountain: “the crowds were amazed at his teaching; for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.” Those listening to Jesus would have expected him to speak of God’s glory reflected in the Temple or through the Law and the Prophets. Jesus had no argument with the Temple or disrespect for the Law and Prophets— quite the contrary. His purpose in coming was to declare a fresh understanding of these gifts from God and to fulfill all God intended when they were given. The Temple had become the stagnant and static presence of God, and the Law had been made into both a burden and a confinement instead of a blessing and a liberation. Jesus’s teaching made Temple, Law and Prophets renewed resources for receiving God’s kingdom reign.
This brings us to a final point. The kingdom of God is the reign of a sovereign God. It is more a dominion than a geographical territory. Those living under God’s dominion would live together in a way which accurately reflected their Sovereign’s rule. They would live “rightly” or consistent with the Ruler’s essence. Jesus would later identify that primary essence of God as a well-defined love. God’s kingdom would be a kingdom of loving relationships with the Sovereign and with all of the Sovereign’s creation. This kind of “rightly” living would be a stark contrast to the teaching of the religious leaders of Jesus’s day, and some would say it is a stark contrast to the teaching of many religious leaders of our day!