Image: Untitled drawing by Gaylene Smith (permanent collection).
‘On salt and light’
Dr Miriam Pepper
Epiphany 5, Year A
Isaiah 58:1-9a; 1 Corinthians 2:1-16; Matthew 5:13-20
“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus tells his disciples, seated with him on the mountain, surrounded by crowds of people. “You are the light of the world.”
Today we continue deeper into the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel.
Having proclaimed a blessing on the poor in spirit, mourners, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; a blessing on the merciful and the pure-hearted, the peacemakers and the persecuted, Jesus now urges his disciples to embody these virtues in their living and in their teaching of others.
The emphasis is first on conduct and second on teaching. Keeping God’s commandments, embodying God’s way of love, is primary.
Jesus likens this to being salt and light. “You are the salt of the earth,” he tells his disciples. “You are the light of the world.”
These metaphors are instructive. Salt and light are essential, but too much of them in the wrong places is destructive. Too much salt is toxic to our bodies and to the land. Similarly, as some of us know only too well throughout the warmer months, overexposure to light damages our skin. Reflecting on these metaphors leads us away from questions about our number or size as a church to concentrate instead on matters of conduct. Just like salt brings out the flavour in food, how we live our lives can bring out the best in our communities – love and mercy. And as a light brings illumination to all in a house, how we conduct ourselves can help bring clarity and compassionate understanding to others.
Mahatma Gandhi – that humble Hindu practitioner of nonviolence (ahimsa in Sanskrit) – deeply loved the Sermon on the Mount. Inspired by its emphasis on the virtues of ethical living, it is said that he read it every day. He was especially drawn to the later parts of the chapter (verses 38-48) which teach love for enemy, non-retaliation, and repaying evil with good, and he insisted on the relevance of these teachings both in everyday living and in public life. Gandhi went on to lead a massive nonviolent movement that resisted the British occupation of India, and which in turn has inspired numerous other liberation movements for justice, peace and ecological care over the last hundred years.
Nonviolent resistance is controversial. One aspect is to bring to the surface, dramatise, or illuminate injustice in ways that cannot be ignored. The salt march, led by Gandhi in opposition to the British Raj – drew attention to the injustices of colonial rule and rallied numerous Indians to the cause. Salt was heavily taxed – which impacted on the poor particularly – and the government had a stranglehold on its production. The salt march of 1930, traversing almost 400km over several weeks, gathering many followers along the way, culminated in an act of civil disobedience. At the end of the march at Dandi, in defiance of the salt laws, Gandhi evaporated sea water to make his own salt. He held the salty mud aloft and said, “With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire”.
There was international media attention – and criticism, not least from Winston Churchill. Millions of Indians followed suit by making their own salt. Tens of thousands were arrested. The march was a key moment in the raising of consciousness and the development of the Indian independence struggle.
Salt of the earth indeed.
Scholars of nonviolence, who have examined the social movements of history – struggles for civil rights, liberation from colonial rule, anti-war movements, environmental protection – say that it takes a couple of per cent of the population to mobilise nonviolently in the name of justice and peace to bring about lasting change. And aside from any principled commitment to nonviolence, such movements that are more likely to achieve their aims than those that take up arms.
The Sermon on the Mount would ring hollow if not for Jesus’ own way of life in accordance with his teachings – a life lived in love and service, offering challenge and provocation to those who profit at the expense of others, welcoming people considered to be unclean and unworthy, and refusing to react with violence when threatened but instead to suffer the consequences. This is the Christ crucified whom Paul proclaims in the first letter to the Corinthians. Christ crucified, the Wisdom of God, foolishness to conventional wisdom and understandings of blessing and reward. The kin-dom of God, which is owned, inhabited and made real through the lives and examples of those who are humble and persecuted.
Foolishness it might be, but deeply in continuity with the tradition of the Jewish law and the prophets, like Isaiah, who calls on the people “to loose the bonds of injustice” and “let the oppressed go free”, “to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house”. Such is true worship of God.
Just like salt brings out the flavour in food, how we live our lives can bring out the best in our communities – love and mercy. And as a light brings illumination to all in a house, how we conduct ourselves can help bring clarity and compassionate understanding to others.
By God’s grace, may it be so.