The ethical message of ‘salt and light’, Matthew 5:13-16) is part of the broader teachings of Christ called the Sermon on the Mount, which is the first of five great treatises recorded in Matthew (Ch. 5-7; 10; 13; 18; 24-25). Which consists of three types of materials, 1) the beatitudes, i.e., declarations of blessedness (5: 1-12), 2) ethical admonitions (5: 13-20; 6: 1-7:23), and 3) contrasts between Jesus ethical teachings and Jewish legalistic traditions (5: 21-48). The Sermons ends with a short parable stressing the importance of practising what has just been taught (7: 24-27) and an expression of amazement by the crowds at the authority with which Jesus spoke (7: 28-29).
Sentiments vary among theologians as to whether the Sermon is a summary of what Jesus taught on one occurrence or an accumulation of teachings presented on several occasions. Matthew then would possibly have taken a single sermon and extended it with other relevant teachings of Jesus. Whatever side you agree with, what is undeniable is the Sermon on the Mount is a call to moral and ethical living. Its principled call is so high that some have dismissed it as being absolute, impractical in an application and therefore have projected its fulfilment to the future kingdom. However, there is no doubt, that Jesus, as recorded by Matthew, gave the sermon as a standard for all Christians, realising that its demands cannot be met in our own power, but by the presence of the Holy Spirit guiding us along the way. Also true is that Jesus on occasion used hyperbole to make His point.
Therefore, here is Jesus in His Homily using the concepts of salt and light, which He has done on a number of different times to refer to the role of His followers in the world. One such instance as written here in Matthew 5:13: ‘You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot’. Back in the days, in the Middle Eastern world, of Christ and the Apostles, first century AD, Salt had two purposes, ‘flavouring and preservatives’. Many of us take our fridges a 19th-century invention, for granted many shoppers often seen pulling their groceries from their cars and loading them in our refrigerators weekly. Nevertheless, in those days it was not so, and because of the lack of refrigeration, salt was applied to preserve food, especially meat that would quickly spoil in the desert environment. The concept of believers in Christ being the preservatives to the world, is powerful (Psa. 14:3; Rom. 8:8). The presence of Christians preserves the world from the evil that is inherent in the society of ungodly men whose unredeemed natures are corrupted by sin.
Likewise, salt was used then, as now, as a flavour enhancer. In the same manner that salt improves the taste of the food it flavours, the followers of Christ stand out as those who ‘improve’ the flavour of life in this world. Christians, living under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and in obedience to Christ, will inevitably influence the world for good, as salt has a positive influence on the taste of the food it seasons. So that where there is strife, Christians are to be peacemakers; where there is sorrow, he is to be the ministers of Christ, healing wounds, and where there is hatred, he is to demonstrate the love of God in Christ, returning good in the place of evil (Luke 6:35).
In the similarity of light to the world, the good deeds of Christ’s followers are to shine for the entire world to see. Now examine how Matthew 5 highlights this truth: ‘You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. ‘Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead, they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven’ (Matt. 5:14-16, NIV). The impression Christ is giving here is similar, the presence of light in the darkness is something that is unmistakable. Therefore the presence of Christians in the world must be likened to the light in the darkness, not only in the sense that the truth of God’s Word brings light to the darkened hearts of sinful man (John 1:1-10), but correspondingly in the sense that Christian’s good deeds must be evident for all to see. Moreover, indeed, our actions will be obvious if they are done in accordance with the other principles that Jesus references in His Sermon, such as the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:3-11. Particularly take note that Christ concern is not that Christians would stand out for their own sake, but that those who looked on and become aware of their status in Christ, might be led to ‘glorify your Father in heaven’ (v. 16).
In light of these teachings, Christians should take serious note of the sorts of things that could hinder or prevent us from fulfilling our roles as salt and light in the world. The sermon plainly states that the difference between the Christian and the world must be preserved; therefore, any activity on our part that shadows the difference between Christians and the rest of the world is a step in the wrong direction. This can happen either through a choice to accept the ways of the world for the sake of comfort or expediency or to disregard the law of obedience to Christ.
How often do we hear the term peace being floated about, yet we see an environment packed with tension? ‘Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other’ (Mark 9:50). The proposal here is that saltiness can be lost specifically through a lack of peace with one another. Therefore, to maintain our salt flavour we are commanded to have peace among us. Likewise, ‘Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure heap; it is thrown out’, (Luke 14:34-35). Here we find a reference to the metaphor of salt once again, this time in the context of obedient discipleship to Jesus Christ. This loss of saltiness occurs in the failure of the Christian to daily take up the cross and follows Christ enthusiastically.
Apparently, then, the character of the Christian as salt and light in the world could stall or prohibited through any decision to collaborate or settle for that which is more expedient or comfortable, rather than that which is truly best and pleasing to the Lord. Moreover, the status of salt and light is something that follows naturally from the Christian’s humble obedience to the commandments of Christ. If we abolish the commandments, and teach men so, on what basis can we guide our spiritual walk and in obedience to Christ? It is when we depart from the Spirit-led lifestyle of obedience and genuine discipleship that the distinctions between ourselves and the rest of the world become hazy and our testimony is stalled. However, by remaining focused on Christ and being obedient to Him can we expect to remain salt and light in the world? However, the concept of Christianity is seen as a myth to the wider world, and they say it cannot be proven by science. In the eyes of philosophers it beyond reason, that Christians are foolish and using ‘God as a crutch’. In the eyes of many, the stock of the world jokes, trampled under feet, harassed and killed for their faith in many countries, Christ is saying without you, the ‘Christian’, the world would have no light, and no taste!