We missed the gospel of the beatitudes, which initiates a five-Sunday continuous reading of Matthew's Sermon on the Mount, because of the feast day that fell on Sunday last week, but that should be all right. For us Christians, the lectionary readings aren't supposed to be isolated experiences of God's word as though we were hearing them for the first time. We already live by the book, we say. Hearing the readings ought to summon from within us the memory of these stories, like a whiff of perfume or a song might conjure memories of days, weeks, or months of our lives. So hearing today's gospel about salt and light should remind us of the beatitudes, and have us, in a way, leaning forward in our seats, waiting to hear more of what will follow. The sermon will unfold over several weeks in a way that it has not for many years, since Easter, and hence Lent and the end of winter Ordinary Time, come so late this year.
I wanted to say a couple of quick things about "salt of the earth," and the strange question about salt losing its flavor. People have bent over backwards trying to explain this apparently rhetorical question from Jesus, but cultural exegetes have offered a different and much more cogent explanation for (at least) the last thirty years. It goes back to how Hebrew/Aramaic words got translated into Greek and then into English, but it makes a powerful argument for several other scriptural passages. For a fuller treatment, and so you don't know I'm just making this up, check out this article from 2011 in Theological Studies, "Salt for the earthen revisited," by John Pilch. To make a long story short, a single word in Hebrew is used for "earth" and "earthen oven." In this case, Pilch suggests that the Greek gē renders the Hebrew gere, should be translated as "earthen oven." He then talks about the role that salt plays as a catalyst for dung fires in the Middle East where there is little firewood, and there is much disgusting detail about which dung is best for fires. Not for the squeamish. Just take my word for it. Flat plates of salt were placed in ovens to make the fires light and burn better. After time, due to chemical reactions, the salt became useless as a catalyst, and a new plate of salt was needed to line the oven. The old plate was thrown out onto the ground.
So Pilch and others postulate that Jesus was saying "you are salt for an earthen oven," that is, you're in there to light a hot fire. If you don't do that, what good are you? If salt doesn't catalyze the fire, what do you do? You throw it out and use some other salt that will start the fire. He goes on to talk about the "light of the world" and the "city set on a mountain." Here, he sees the use of the words in the passage with literary eyes as a chiasmus, an inclusion, like this:
These verses are structured like this: a – light: b – city: b’ – lamp: a’ – light. The relationship of light in a + a’ is clear, but city and lamp in b and b’? Von Rad’s (1966:232–242) analysis explains it clearly. He notes that the city is the eschatological city of God (Is 2:2–4; Mi 4:1–3). It is to be revealed at the end time by God and is a large, walled city above all human habitations, with total security. It has its own light supply, therefore it is always bathed in light. The entire world can see it. (Some archaeologists think that the view of Sepphoris from Nazareth might have been the inspiration for this image.)Harkening back to the oral tradition behind the sayings of Jesus, Pilch reminds us that there is a pun in the Hebrew words 'or (light) and 'ir (city).
Ultimately, what is this light and salt for the fire in the earthen oven which Jesus is calling his hearers to be, which, in fact, he says they already are as they hear his words? To take a step backwards to the beatitudes, which Pilch refers to as makarisms, a word he derives from the Greek makarios, which is the word translated as "blessed" or "happy" in the beatitudes, and which actually means something like "fortunate," these saying describe a state of being which his hearers might already claim. That is, they are not something that needs to be striven for, they are the actual locus of makarios, they are already the place where God is present! Clearly, as the Sermon on the Mount is challenging the way people like us are to treat one another, it is just as clearly redefining God for us, making us consider who God is, and how God is present to us and acts in the world, in a wholly different way.
Isaiah and Psalm 112 give us more insight into what it means to be "light in the darkness" of the world. Isaiah 58 starts out with the Lord and his prophet mimicking the complaint of Israel: "we're fasting our butts off here, Lord, and offer all those dang sacrifices. Why don't you give us what we want?" But God says, "all I see is your fighting and violence, and they way you treat those who are working for you. Do you think I care about your fasting and sacrifices? Who do you think you are? Who do you think I am?" We don't get the famous line that we sometimes hear in Lent: This is the fasting I seek: "releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking off every yoke..." which all comes in verse 6. Our passage Sunday begins with verse seven: share your bread with the hungry; shelter the poor; comfort the afflicted; don't shun your own people. Then, God says through the prophet, then your light will shine and glory will guard the road behind you. Feed the hungry and satisfy those who don't have enough, then your light will shine, and darkness will seem like noon.
Light for us isn't just a matter of nice words, a matter of being. It's a call to action. You are light, Jesus says, so act like it. You're what makes fire in the world possible: do what you're supposed to do. Burn. Shine. And the way you burn and shine is laid out for you there in the prophets: feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, welcome the stranger, comfort the afflicted, don't make life worse for people.
The ones called to be fire and light are the same ones address in the Beatitudes. "You're already blessed, right where you are," Jesus seems to be saying, "you don't need to look higher or elsewhere. Look deeply into your shared life, and you will find the presence of God." His intention seems to be to change the world with them, and us when we are with them, the poor (in spirit), the merciful, the lowly, those who long for justice, the single-hearted, peacemakers, and the persecuted. He has come to start a fire with them, with us, with salt and dung. It's like remembering Genesis 3: 19 on Ash Wednesday. If God can make a world with mud and breath, what might God be able to do with me, salt of the earthen oven, and pile of sh*t that my life sometimes seems to be? Think about that when you hear this Sunday's gospel!