February 9, 2014 Isaiah 58: 1-9a Matthew 5: 13-20
Rev. Catherine Purves
I know I have mentioned my grandmother before in sermons. She had a big impact on me when I was growing up, and her prayers for me carried me through college and graduate school, the early years of my marriage, and the birth of our three children. One thing that I know I have not told you about my grandmother is the affectionate nickname she was given. To me, she was always Nana, but the adults in the family often referred to her as “Salty Joe.” Salty Joe – I’m not sure where that came from, since her name was Viola. I understand the salty part, though. She was the master cook of our family, and she liked nothing better than to prepare a huge Thanksgiving, Christmas, or birthday dinner. Even her ordinary meals were quite delicious. The only thing was, she liked salt… a lot. Usually she didn’t over-salt the food before it got onto her own plate, but there was no doubt that she did have a taste for salt.
She was kind of salty in other ways too. She had a quick sense of humor and I remember her as always smiling and laughing a lot. She liked her mystery novels and could read several in a week. We didn’t have to worry that they would be too gruesome or bloody or salty for her; she just ate them up. She read her Bible and her devotional books too. During the Vietnam War she wrote letters to servicemen overseas and she prayed for them every day. Many years later, one of them even came to her funeral. This was all after her heart attack when the salt that she loved was no longer a prominent part of her diet. She added her own salt, I expect, when no one was looking. And she added a kind of salty blessing to all of our lives, right up until she died at the age of 100. She has convinced me that there is something to be said for a diet and a life that is salty.
When Jesus told his disciples that they were the salt of the earth, he was also letting us know what he thought about a low salt diet. In the ancient world salt was a highly prized commodity, not only as a desired spice for food, but as a very necessary preservative. The salt trade was really important both because of the scarcity of salt and because everyone needed it. In this passage where Jesus is urging his followers to be salt for the earth, or rather, declaring them to be salt, we see that, as Christians, our presence in the world makes a real, necessary difference. This difference serves both to spice things up and to preserve.
As Jesus goes on to talk about his own relation to the Law and the prophets in this same passage, we see that he was pretty salty too. He tells his followers that he did not come to abolish the Law and the prophets, but to fulfill them and thereby preserve them, a very salty thing to do. And if we asked the Pharisees and the scribes about that, they would say that Jesus was adding his own distinctive and spicy interpretation to the Law and the prophets which was far more ‘salty’ – they might even say revolutionary – than their own.
Isaiah was another Salty Joe who did not shrink back from challenging Israel in its practice of the Law, but who desperately wanted to preserve the heart of Israel’s calling to live their faith in the world, to be like salt and light. He would not have approved of a low salt diet either, because a low salt Israel would not manifest God’s passionate love for the world and especially for the poor and those in need. Like Jesus, Isaiah was not simply an individual with his own ideas about how to obey the Law. Isaiah was sent to deliver and to live out a message direct from God. At the beginning of our passage, God says to Isaiah, “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.”
Israel was simply not salty enough. They were not making a real difference in the world. Oh, they were devoted and highly religious. They worshiped God faithfully with much bowing and scraping, with fasting and sackcloth and ashes. And this was not purely for show. Isaiah in describing them says that “they delight to draw near to God.” But apparently their delighting in their own religious practices was not what fulfilling the commandments was meant to be about. That was not preserving the covenant; that was not adding salt and light to the world.
Israel was existing on a low salt diet that only served to make them feel good about themselves. It did not further God’s agenda which called for an end to injustice and oppression. The religious practices that God required of his people included caring for the poor, the hungry, and the homeless. This is what brings salt and savor to the world. This is what would make Israel a light to the nations. A low salt diet that is little more than personal piety layered on top of a life of sin will certainly not please God.
Jesus, like Isaiah, wants his followers to know that a low salt diet and low salt living has its consequences. He puts this rhetorical question to his disciples: “if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” In other words, if the people of God are not living as the people of God, being the salt of the earth and the light of the world, revealing God’s will and God’s ways in the world, what then? Jesus answers his own question. “if the salt has lost its taste…it is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” Ouch! The dangers of a low salt diet!
In the second section of our text from Matthew, however, it sounds as if Jesus is telling his followers that they should become compulsive followers of the Law, outdoing even the scribes and Pharisees in their righteousness. He goes so far as to say that “whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” This sounds like a new legalism, not the presence of salt and light in the world. How are we to understand this surprising and unexpected teaching of Jesus?
Our son Gordon loves games. These are not the kind of games you buy in Toys R Us. These are the sorts of games that are sold in Barnes and Noble. I think that’s because there are so many rules that there is literally a book of instructions with every game. The rules form the parameters within which you build civilizations or wage wars or explore worlds unknown. Gordon is the only one who understands all of the rules in his games, in part because he is the only one who can be bothered to read and remember everything in the rule books.
There are rules for everything. Even keeping track of how many different things you have to do in a single turn is beyond most of the rest of us. Gordon patiently explains the rules at every juncture, correcting us when necessary. Not surprisingly, he almost always wins these games. Sometimes that’s because the rest of us give up and go off to do something else. But most of the time it’s because he is really the only one who truly understands the nature of the game. The purpose and the spirit of the rules make sense to him, and he seems to follow them intuitively.
I think that this is how Jesus understood the Law and the prophets. Yes, there are a lot of rules. The scribes and Pharisees knew all of them. But they didn’t fully understand the ‘game,’ just as Isaiah saw that Israel didn’t understand the necessary connection between worship and their way of life in the world. In order to be salt and light you need to live in and act out of a relationship with God that cannot be reduced to a book full of rules, but which nonetheless is given shape and direction by those rules.
When we as Christians are living in Christ, who is himself the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets, then we have an intuitive sense of what will please God and what will provide salt and light for the world. It’s not just about following the rule book. It’s about living in the game, or more precisely, living in Christ and thereby becoming salt and light for the world. That is how our righteousness can exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees, because then our righteousness is a sharing in Christ’s righteousness and a sharing in the relationship that Jesus has with his Father.
So let this be a warning to you. Beware the dangers of a low salt diet. We are all meant to be Salty Joes. We are people who worship and people who act in the world, people who make a difference. We are salt and light because we are living in Christ. We don’t just follow the rules; we understand the rules of relationship with God. Jesus taught us that loving both God and our neighbor is the essence of those rules. When we intuitively understand that, as the Holy Spirit leads us into both worship and service, then we will be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. So, how are you going to be a Salty Joe in your family, in the church, in our community, and in the world? This is an important question for you, because as a Christian you are the salt of the earth.