Salt of the Earth: Light of the World
Ordinary 5 Year A
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
St. Matthew 5: 13 — 16
Chapter 5 of St. Matthew’s Gospel opens with our Lord preaching on the eight Beatitudes which are to reflect the Spirit of God’s Kingdom in the world. They are to typify how His followers will obey His injunction given later in chapter 22: 35 — 40 where He commanded them to love God with all their heart, soul and mind, and love their neighbour as themselves.
Thus the Beatitudes are not a replacement of the Ten Commandments, but a new spirit given to fulfil the Law, and bring it to perfection.
Our Lord then extended the eight Beatitude to warn His followers that since they are to be the successors of the ancient prophets, they must expect persecution of every kind. Even more, they are to welcome it and rejoice when it comes!
Our reading of verses 13 to 16 gives us two sayings of Jesus in which He emphasises how open and generous His disciples must be in showing the world just what it means to be a follower of Jesus Messiah.
Some Reflections on the Text
You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with
what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything
but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
Our Lord’s listeners would have felt very affirmed by that declaration. After all, salt is essential in everyday life. In effect he is saying, “Your lives and your good works will be essential for the well-being of the world”.
“But beware”, He implies. Salt can dissolve and disappear without trace and all you are left with is the grit, which came with it. Sure, it can be used on footpaths to stop people slipping, but that is hardly its original purpose. So too, unless you guard very carefully all that I am passing on to you, it will slip through your fingers without a trace, and you will have nothing distinctive to offer those who need spiritual nourishment. Then they will turn to the unspiritual or the ungodly as a substitute source of inspiration and direction. If that happens you will be like the grit left after the salt has quietly disappeared, without your noticing it.
There is, therefore, a very vivid warning from our Lord that once salt has lost its effectiveness, it cannot be restored. His disciples were to be on constant guard against compromise and conformity with the world’s standards, or they would lose their ability to represent Him and His message. As a result, souls could be lost.
Verses 14 and 15
You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain
cannot be hidden.
Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel
basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to
all in the house.
Before reflecting on these verses about light, we need to understand the fulfilment of prophecy our Lord was Himself aware of in His ministry.
In the prophecy of Isaiah, it is recorded:
“I the Lord, have called you to serve the cause of right; I have taken
you by the hand and formed you; I have appointed you as a covenant
of the people and light of the nations, to open the eyes of the blind,
to free captives from prison, and those who live in darkness from
the dungeon.” (Isaiah 42: 6 — 7)
“I will make you the light of the nations, so that my salvation may
reach the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49: 6)
It will also help us to know that traditionally, from ancient times, the title “Light of the World” was given to the most senior and eminent rabbis. Our Lord here and now either transfers the title to His close disciples, or at least includes them within its scope. Whichever is the case, the meaning is clear. By the doctrines He is teaching and passing on to them, they were to be the means by which the light of life would be diffused throughout the world.
Jesus, thereby, calls His disciples to share in the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy and be the means by which the light of His spiritual truth will be shared with all creation.
Having conferred the “Light of the Nations” title upon his infant Church, Jesus immediately emphasises what cannot be allowed to happen to this light.
First: This light is to remain always like a city on a hill; able to be seen at all times by all who wish to look and see. (They can, of course, choose not to look and see.)
Secondly, in the day-to-day comings and goings of ordinary life, this light must be present and never deliberately covered up, or just as importantly, never allowed carelessly to drift out of the sight of the people.
This idea is taken up by St. John at the beginning of his first epistle, where he taught that God is light, and those who obey His Commandments walk in the light. Christians, therefore, through their participation in the light and life of God, through Jesus His Son, become themselves channels of light to those who are in darkness. Thus they would be lighting the path to God for those who would otherwise not be able to reach Him.
Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see
your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.
Jesus rounds off this section with one of his well-known “one liners”:
Another modern translation, seeking to emphasise the intense meaning of our Lord’s words has expressed them like this:
“In the same way your light must shine in the sight of all, so that, seeing
your good works, they may give praise to your Father in heaven”.
This is indeed a bold statement from the Lord. It requires the followers of Jesus Messiah to show evidence, by their actions and daily life, that they are righteous. In other words, all that they do reflects the mind and will of God. They will give light only insofar as they walk in the light themselves, and live by it. Thus when we carry out good works or deeds, we give light to others whereby they see the source of that light — that is, God. That is how God chooses to be revealed, and His people are the agents through whom His light is to be radiated.
“The Israelites said to the holy blessed God, Thou commanded us to
light lamps to thee; and yet thou art the Light of the world, and with
thee the light dwelleth. The holy blessed God answered, I do not
command this because I need light; but that you may reflect light
upon me, as I have illuminated you: — that the people may say,
Behold, how the Israelites illustrate him, who illuminates them in
the sight of the whole earth.” Bammidbar Rabba (s. 15)
We should be careful not to fall into the trap of interpreting our Lord’s teaching as a condemnation of His own people’s failures. Judaism had a very wonderful care and concern for the welfare of all humanity. It faced great difficulties and Jesus is here ensuring his followers realise that they had better be ready to face the same. In trying to live according to the beatitudes, we can count on having much to contend with!
Every follower of the Way of Jesus must reflect in their actions and speech the mind and will of God. The ancients called this the Torah, a term which came to be applied to God’s Law and the Holy Scriptures embodying this. Jesus is clear and succinct — if we have the right humble attitude we will be able to carry out what He has said in these few verses without any fear of drawing attention to ourselves rather than God. The Rabbis had long dealt with this issue and Jesus is entirely in harmony with that great tradition.
We close with three snippets from rabbinic literature.
• “God shall be glorified among the Gentiles through you; but
through him that doeth not that which is good, God shall be
dishonoured. (Test. Naph. 8: 4.)
• Rabbi Simon ben Eleazar said: “When the Israelites do God’s
will, His name is exalted in the world. When they do not do His
will, His name is, as it were, profaned in the world, as it says,
And they profaned My holy name”. (Ezek. 36: 20)
• There is a story about Rabbi Simon ben Shetah who bought
a donkey from an Ishmaelite. His students went and discovered
a precious stone hanging from its neck. They said to him,
“Rabbi, the blessing of the Lord makes rich”. (Prov. 10: 22)
Rabbi Shetah said to them, “I bought a donkey; I did not buy
a precious stone.” He went and returned the stone to the
Ishmaelite, who said to him, “Blessed be the God of Simon ben Shetah”.
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(Mark 16: 15)
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Let us remember God’s teaching, contained in His Word and in doing
Salt of the Earth: Light of the World
Ordinary 5 Year A Matthew 5: 13 to 16
1. Some of us grew up thinking that when our Lord taught the Beatitudes,
2. Our reading contains one of our Lord’s strongest warnings to His listeners.
3. As Messiah, Jesus had come to bring fulfilment to Israel’s vocation as a
Let us pray for one another that we will heed the warnings of our Lord Jesus
Matthew 5: 13 — 16
Ordinary 5 Year A
13 11 12 You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with
14 You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be
15 Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it
16 Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see
12  The unusual supposition of salt losing its flavor has led some to suppose that the saying refers to the salt of the Dead Sea that, because chemically impure, could lose its taste.
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition