02.09.14 The Righteousness of the Kingdom Matthew 5:13-20 Sermon Summary
Does Jesus teach that you can be too concerned about religion? Yes. Yes he does.
- The metaphors of salt and light and what they suggest to us about religion
- The problem of religion according to Isaiah and Jesus
- Judgment and living in the kingdom of God
- Some places to start
- Closing prayer
- Questions for discussion and reflection
Several years ago someone I knew began to lose his mind. He washed his hands with toothpaste, used the garage door opener to try to control his TV, and grieved the death of a celebrity he never met more sorrowfully than I have ever witnessed. In fact, he was suffering from hyponatremia, a salt deficiency. It can be fatal.
Too much salt can be fatal also. In ancient China, those who had dishonored themselves and their families could commit ritual suicide by ingesting too much salt.
Salt has to be in the right amount. So does religion. In Leviticus 2:13, God commands Moses to season every sacrifice with salt—not too much, not too little. Even today most recipes conclude with “add salt to taste.”
Why does Jesus use the metaphor of salt (and later, light) to direct his disciples in the appropriate use of religion? Here are some instructive observations. First, we only notice salt and light when there is too much or too little of them. Salt is never the main dish; it’s never on the menu but it’s always on the table, ready to serve according to each one’s personal preference.
Second, both salt and light are necessary, but must be appropriate. If you’re brining a salmon, you need a lot of salt. If you’re seasoning a dish, only a little. If you’re performing surgery, you want a lot of light. If you’re enjoying a romantic dinner, only a candle is necessary.
These metaphors help Jesus’ disciples to manage their religion. There is always a place for religion, but it is governed by appropriateness (not to be confused with decorum, which is another sermon).
But what about Jeuss’ statement that our righteousness should “exceed that of the Pharisees”? Isn’t this an indication that Jesus wants us to be “sold out” “Jesus freaks” (I’m showing my age here).
I don’t think so. The problem with religion is that it can mask unrighteousness. I know a lot of very religious people who are anything but righteous, but don’t try to convince them of it. They’re too surrounded by religion to realize it. This was Isaiah’s observation. The people were complaining to God: “Day after day we delight in you! We fast, we serve, and we humble ourselves. Why are you silent?!”
The reason is that religiosity isn’t necessarily true righteousness. True righteousness is justice, generosity, and hospitality. From this perspective, fasting is simply self-restraint in order to capture some resources for the benefit of others. You fast a meal and instead donate the money to alleviate the hunger of someone else.
Isaiah says true righteousness results in the light of God’s presence shining ever brighter. We are more assured of God’s protection. Using another metaphor, our lives become lush gardens. And society is healed.
Jesus would agree. True righteousness is salting and lighting the world, not with prescribed amounts, but to taste, according to what is just, generous, and hospitable in the moment.
Paul calls this spiritual discernment. Through this spiritual (rather than religious) perspective, Isaiah, Jesus, and Paul are able to see God’s kingdom throughout the world. They are already living in the kingdom of God through salting and lighting the world with justice, generosity, and hospitality.
But can it be this easy? Doesn’t Jesus warn us with a judgment; “Getting trampled underfoot if we lose our saltiness”? I don’t think so. I think this statement is more about being and usefulness, what our tradition calls “vocation,” than it is about judgment. Remember that blessedness is something we receive, not something we achieve.
Jesus is reminding us that each of us is called to salt and light the world, but only according to our situation, and only according our saltiness and light. Some of us are salt-shakers; some of us are fertilizers. Whether you’re called to season a dish or melt ice off the sidewalk, you’re called to be salt. Some of us are flashlights; some floodlights. Whatever your capacity, God has equipped you to shine in a dark place.
Where can we start? First, we have to be convinced that the kingdom is present and that the world needs it. Unless you accept that the world needs salt and light, you’ll never recognize the opportunity to be so. Second, we must be filled with Christ’s Spirit. We can’t offer what we don’t have. Our light is a reflection of Jesus’. Third, we must be open to being led. We can find prescriptions on religious behavior in scripture (like the tithe). But we have to let the Spirit lead us in the particular ways we ourselves are called to be faithful. (On giving to the church, see here.)
For me, the disciplines of the sacraments and contemplative prayer help me to be salt and light. The sacraments remind me of the kingdom’s presence even in the ordinariness of the world. If God is present in the water, bread, and wine as he promises to be, and I cannot deny my hands are wet and my mouth is dry, then God is present in the world. And silent, spiritual, receptive prayer often leads me to a place where I recognize opportunities to be salt and light.
Jesus you lived without sin because you lived according to your Father’s will. You salted and lighted the world perfectly according to the needs of the moment. You observed religious ritual with your fellow Jews, and you transgressed religious rules in the name of justice, generosity, and hospitality. For us, in our own lives, you have been salt and light. When we have needed strength, you have supported us. When we have needed comfort, you have held us. When we have been lost, you have led us like a shepherd. When we have despaired, you have raised us up on eagle’s wings. When we have grieved, you have wept with us. When our joy was running low, you provided more wine. Help us to be salt and light as you were. Teach us to pray as you prayed, keep us ever mindful of your presence, fill us with your Spirit, and give us eyes to see every opportunity you have ordained for our righteousness to be as yours and to exceed that of the Pharisees, that we may share the salt and light of God’s kingdom with others. Amen.
Questions for discussion and reflection
- Given the metaphors of salt and light, and what you know about them, what other suggestions can you make about how to be a disciple of Christ?
- What are some other examples of people being religious but not righteous?
- How might your own practice of religion be masking unrighteousness?
- What are some ways you can be salt and light? Are you a salt-shaker or a fertilizer; a flashlight or a floodlight?