"The Good and Beautiful Life"
W. Gregory Pope, preaching
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Series: The Sermon on the Mount
The Good and Beautiful Life: Jesus’ Vision for a New World
God is creating an all-inclusive community of persons whose hearts and character are shaped by the teachings of Jesus. It’s called the kingdom of God. And all of us are invited. Those who pledge their allegiance and give their lives to the kingdom of God are living beatitudes - walking, talking blessings to the world.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers some beautiful metaphors for those who become disciples, who turn and enter the kingdom: salt of the earth, light of the world, city on a hill. I find it interesting to hear these words of Jesus and then look back in Israel’s history some 1500 years before Jesus to the time of Abraham and Sarah, back where it all began.
Blessed to be a Blessing
God said to Abraham and Sarah, “I will bless you and you will be a blessing. I will establish my covenant with you and through you all the peoples of the earth will be blessed.” This was God’s plan for God’s people.
Several generations later, recorded in the book of Numbers, God says to God’s people, “This is an everlasting covenant of salt before the Lord.” Interesting. Salt used in the binding of covenants.
Salt of the Earth
Could Jesus be saying to these peasants on a hillside, “You are the salt of the earth. You, the poor in spirit, the spiritually empty, the meek, the persecuted - you are invited to be included in the covenant people of God, the new Israel”? Is that what’s happening here?
And why the metaphor of salt?
Well, in the ancient world, with no refrigeration, decay and rot were the great enemies of life, and salt was the only force that could arrest decay. It could preserve.
So God says to Israel, I want to make with you a covenant of salt. Why? Because in the world there’s rot, decay, sin, corruption. So much is spoiled. And I’m going to have this covenant of salt so that through you, my people, I can begin save this rotting world.
Salt is a healing agent: “Don’t forget to gargle with salt water.” As salt of the earth we are healers in this world of brokenness and decay.
As salt of the earth we make the world more savory, adding flavor to a world that is often tasteless. Salt flavors often in ways that cannot be seen. It’s hard to see salt on food, is it not? So it becomes a good excuse to add more salt just to be sure, right? This world will always need more salt. And this salt is good for the heart of the world.
Someone has translated our being the salt of the earth with the quip: “a sodium-free diet is not for you.” It’s terrible and tacky, I know, but if it helps remind you that are the salt of the earth, then fine.
Salt is not good for anything unless it is being used for something else. We are salt for the world. We preserve, we heal, we flavor. We are the presence, compassion, and mercy of God for the world.
And whenever the church loses sight of its mission to be salt - to live the kingdom life in the world pointing to God - and becomes something else instead, like a social club, it becomes as worthless as unsalty salt - a salt substitute if you will.
We are the salt of the earth.
Light of the World / City on a Hill
We are the light of the world, Jesus says, echoing the voice of God to God’s Servant people through the prophet Isaiah: “I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”
In chapter four Matthew has already alluded to this light of which Isaiah spoke, the light that has dawned in Galilee in the coming of Christ (4:16) for all who live in darkness.
And this Christ now says to this motley crew gathered on a hillside, “You are the light of the world. Like Jerusalem, you are a city on a hill that cannot be hidden.”
In Jesus’ day there was a group of Jews known as the Essenes. They called themselves the “sons of light” in contrast to the “sons of darkness” of the world. They sought to totally separate themselves from a culture they perceived as full of evil and darkness. But Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. You don’t light a lamp and put in under a bowl. You do not isolate yourselves from the darkness of the world.” Just as salt is meant for food, light is meant for the darkness. Light invades the darkness, permeates it, seeks it out, makes its home there. And in doing so, makes it shine.
So let your light shine before other people, Jesus said, that they may see your good deeds and be drawn to the true light, the light of God beaming in the face of Jesus.
Frank Stagg offers a helpful reminder when we says, “We are light only if God has made us light.”1 We could say that the light we are is God-reflected light. The light serves but it is not self-serving. We serve as light in the world to glorify God.
We have been called out of darkness into God’s marvelous light, only to return to the darkness, lighting the way to God in the world. We are the ones whom God intends to shine his bright light into the world’s dark corners, not simply to show up evil but to enable people who are blundering around in the dark to find their way. But we must take care not to become part of the darkness.
One of the things we do in worship is to open ourselves up to God in order to live as salt and light in the world. We praise God in worship, we hear God’s Word, we offer ourselves to be used by God, so that we may glorify God in the world through our God-centered lives.
You ARE Salt and Light
What’s happening here is nothing short of mind-blowing. Jesus announces that the kingdom belongs to the nobodies - the poor and weak, the outcasts and the misfits - these are the blessed one who will bless the world. “You are the salt. You are the light. You are my plan. There ain’t no Plan B.”
These people in the crowd have to be thinking, “Jesus, you don’t actually think you can change the world with ordinary sinful people.” And Jesus says, “It’s all I’ve got.”
Notice Jesus doesn’t say that you “should be” the salt of the earth and the light of the world, but you “are” salt, you “are” light.” This is not about guilt. It’s not about having to be more educated and more sophisticated. This is the empowering declaration of identity that we “are” salt and light. It is the identity we are given at baptism as God’s beloved.
There is a church in Ohio where whenever there is a baptism, candidates are given a ceramic salt shaker and a lit candle - a visible declaration that they are joining a community baptized as salt and light in the world.
Law and the Prophets; Exceeding Righteousness
Jesus says we are called to a greater righteousness, a truer goodness, a deeper wholeness than that practiced by the scribes and pharisees of his day. These people were known for their strict adherence to the law and respected for their piety, prayers and fasting. The followers of Jesus are called to a different kind of righteousness, a righteousness that seeks to be ever expressive of the merciful, forgiving, reconciling will of God that lives at the center of the law.
Matthew wants to make it clear that Jesus has not come to do away with the law. “Don’t think I’ve come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have come to fulfill them.”
Richard Rohr suggests in these verses that Jesus strikes a balance and builds a bridge between what we call conservative and liberal. He holds on to the foundation and center of the old (I’ve not come to abolish the law) while extending the boundaries beyond the legalistic observance of the law (your righteousness must do deeper than the scribes and Pharisees).
As conservatives we must conserve what is good and right and true, which can provide a healthy sense of identity and boundaries. As liberals (a word that does not mean heretic or hell-bound but “open” and “generous”) we must go beyond the letter of the law and remain open to what new interpretations the Spirit of Jesus may be teaching.2 The good and beautiful life brings the two together.
David Garland interprets Jesus as saying you don’t read and enforce scripture, but you allow it to read you. The Law and the Prophets are the dynamic, transformative words that change us and send us into the most questionable places, among the most questionable people, because that’s where God is always found. There is a world to bless, to preserve, to light. The law of Moses for Christians neither remains as it is nor is it done away with; rather it is fulfilled and transformed in Jesus Christ. Everything is now interpreted and lived out in the light of Jesus. Jesus seeks to discern for us the true intent of the law.3
Many of us have been taught that the Law is the equivalent to a four-letter word; it is death, and Jesus came to free us from it. Paul says some things that lead us in that direction. But not the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus came to teach us that the Law is indeed a four-letter word. It is spelled L-O-V-E.4
Jesus’ message of love must not be understood as opposition to God’s law but rather a more compelling interpretation of the law. Jesus said, “All the law and the prophets can be summed up this way: Love the Lord your God will all your heart and mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus is trying to keep us from distorting discipleship and spirituality by reminding us that at the heart of it all it’s about love. Love God, love people. It’s what the Torah and the Prophets have been aiming at all along, what God’s been trying to teach us forever. And if you don’t get this, the sermon on the mount then becomes defeating and confusing.
Barbara Brown Taylor says: “For those who followed him, Jesus did not recite Torah; he was Torah. In his words and in his deeds, he was the living justice, mercy, and faith of God. Jesus did not interpret Torah; he fulfilled Torah in his flesh, and he promised those who followed him that they could fulfill it too. By his example, he taught his followers that there would be times when this fulfillment would go further than the Torah on the page - that was the dangerous part. There would be times when the deepest possible obedience to God would look like disobedience to the keepers of the tradition.”5
We do not use the Torah as handcuffs to bind or as a sword to wound others. We live the torah in such a way as to be salt and light in the world.
This deeper righteousness is a way of being in the world that reconciles and heals. And it is the work of God’s Spirit in us. It’s not a possession but a gift. And that gives me hope. It’s like those words spoken to the main character in The Kite Runner: “There is a way to be good again.”
What does it look like? Jesus spends the rest of the sermon, in particular, the rest of chapter five describing this new righteousness. Today’s passage is a kind of gateway to all that will follow.
And what follows is what Glen Stassen calls “transforming initiatives.”6 He sees fourteen of them in this sermon of Jesus; he calls them “triads.” A triad is a name for a musical chord of three interrelated tones. The three tones in Jesus’ triad captures the unity of the three elements Stassen names:
First, there is the naming of traditional piety, conventional religion; ancient law: “You have heard it said . . .”
Then there is mechanism of bondage or the description of the vicious cycle. Jesus’ insight is that each good law - obeyed apart from the Spirit of the law - carries with it a way to entrap you, which is exactly what Paul concludes in both Romans and Galatians.
And then Jesus follows with a transforming initiative that gets to the heart of things: “But I say to you . . .”
That’s what’s ahead of us.
Jesus concludes chapter five with the disturbing line, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” That sounds pretty scary to me, especially with all of my failures. It also sounds scary, I’m sure, to those of you who are perfectionists, who are driven by the need to always get it absolutely right. But the Greek word, teleios, means something closer to completeness and wholeness than it does perfection.
God is not a perfectionist. God is a gardener. God wants us simply to grow, to grow in holiness and goodness and wholeness as we walk with Jesus and Jesus walks with us. God wants to help us find the hidden wholeness, goodness, holiness inside us all and let it bloom into a good and beautiful life.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus does not lay on us a new and even harder set of rules. That would bring only a deeper sense of condemnation and failure, especially for those who try so hard to please God.
Jesus comes to bring us a new heart - a heart awakened to the love of God, a heart opened to the power and presence of God.
Salt of the earth. Light of the world.
Tony Campolo tells the story of how his wife used to be a stay-at-home mom, full-time with their two little children. And at parties, sometimes, people would ask her what she did and when she told them, it didn’t sound too significant and they didn’t act as if it were significant. So she developed this answer. When somebody asked her, What do you do? she would say:
I am socializing two homo sapiens under the dominant values of the Judeo-Christian tradition so that they can become agents of transformation of the social order into a kind of eschatological utopia that God wills from the beginning of creation.
And then she would ask them, What do you do? And the guy would mumble, I am a lawyer, or something like that.
She is salt to the earth and light to the world.
A woman worked doing laundry, her whole life long, impoverished, dies in her 80's, was a follower of Jesus. She saved a little money every week. And at her death, she gave hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars so that poor young students could go to college.
Salt of the earth. Light of the world.
A gifted doctor, very conscientious, made a mistake with a patient. She had the symptoms of cancer earlier; he just missed them.
Now what kind of legal advice would you give a doctor like that? What kind of legal advice would you get if your doctor did something like that?
Well, as soon as the doctor found out, he got in his car, drove to the house of this woman and her husband, and apologized with tears running down his face, “I am so sorry.” He was a Christian, and it turns out they were too. They forgave him. And she’s doing quite well.
Doctor and patient. Salt of the earth. Light of the world.
Where are the darkest places you see in your relationships, your neighborhood, your place of employment? Beginning this week, make an effort to seek out the darkness in those places and be an extravagant presence of love in them.
Open your hands so that God can use what you have. In our society, our wealth, what we have, determines who we are. In the kingdom, it is in what you give away that determines who you are. So give to people who have no hope - that’s salt and light. If you don’t have money to give away, give your time. Read to somebody in a nursing home. Give an hour a week to play with a child.
Small deeds of mercy can flavor the world like salt and illumine the world like a candle in a dark room. We can completely transform communities. Salt enriches food. We enrich your community. One lamp on a lamp stand can banish the gloom from a whole house. Lights on a hilltop village can be seen for miles around.
This is the kind of community God has made us to be - living as light in the darkness. The kind of community where people will look at us and say, “Oh, that’s what the kingdom looks like.”
I am so excited about the possibilities we have to be salt and light through the generous gift of Betty Ann Potter. We have the opportunity to do as one black preacher put it: “to bring the flavor” and “put the gleam on.” Will we do that? I believe that we will.
These words of Jesus are heavy and daunting. To think that we are the salt of the earth and light of the world! To live this justice-righteousness! But be not afraid. The Sermon on the Mount is not about where you have been. It’s about where you’re going. And we’re following the One who knows the way and will guide our every step.
This justice-righteousness is God’s Spirit working in us. It’s not just doing the right thing; it’s learning the tune.
I think that’s what Jesus was getting at. The “exceeding” part of the higher, truer righteousness to which Jesus calls us is not in keeping the letter of the law but in learning the spirit of righteousness. Learning to sing the law of love, not just obey it.
Frederick Buechner re-frames the definition of Righteousness with this picture: Junior is practicing the piano. He’s getting all the notes right - with deadly accuracy - but he’s not getting anywhere close to making music. He’s bored to death and so is anyone who hears him. His heart’s not in it; only his hands. He’s just going through the motions.7
The Righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees is not just playing the notes, plunking down the right finger on the right key. It is making music with good and beautiful lives. It’s being salt that flavors, preserves, and helps heal the world. It’s living in the darkness and raising the curtain as the lights come on, and living a Justice-Righteousness that sounds like music. It is Christ living out his life in our lives. Not only is God a gardener. God is a musician. And we are God’s violin and upon us the music of Justice and Righteousness is to be played - for our salvation and the saving of the world.
1. Frank Stagg, “To Beam or Not to Beam? Matthew 5:16 vis-a-vis 6:1, in the Sermon on the Mount: Studies and Sermons Scott Nash, ed., Smyth and Helwys, 1992, 59
2. Richard Rohr, Jesus’ Vision of a New World, St. Anthony Press, 1996, 148-149
3. David Garland, Matthew, Crossroad, 1993, 53
4. John Siburt, “Fulfilling the Law,” in Fleer and Bland, ed., Preaching the Sermon on the Mount, Chalice, 2007, 101
5. Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven, Westminster John Knox, 2004, 6-7
6. Glen Stassen and David Gushie, Kingdom Ethics, Intervarsity, 2003, 125-145
7. Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, Harper Collins, 1973, 82