“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:16
Thinking about the Gospel reading, there are four nouns from which we might learn: salt, light, a city, and works.
The first noun is “salt.” “You are the salt of the earth,” says Jesus in Saint Matthew Chapter 5 Verse 13. His followers were to be people who preserved what was good, they were to be people who protected against rot and decay. Jesus’ followers were probably not very happy with the idea of being the salt of the earth, they were probably not very happy at the thought that they should be responsible for protecting what was good and guarding against what was wrong. They would have preferred that Jesus had told them that their faith was not concerned with God’s world, but was something that would not bring them into conflict with the religious leaders and the Roman authorities. Being the salt of the earth was not an easy thing about which to think, it would cost many of them their lives.
Do we hear Jesus’ instruction to us that we should be the salt of the earth? Perhaps it does not bring the danger it brought in Jesus’ time, but it does mean we have to have the courage to speak for what we believe? What does Jesus say about us if we fail to be the salt of the earth? He says, “if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” If our faith is something that is just private and personal, then we are like salt that has lost its saltiness.
The second noun is “light.” “You are the light of the world,” says Jesus in Verse 14. The responsibility to be like light would have been as intimidating as being like salt. Light shows things up, it scatters darkness. There was much in the world that people would not have wanted to be seen, they would not have wanted people to have seen what they were doing or the way they were living. Jesus shows up the religious leaders, and the darkness they have brought into their religion with their corrupt ways, and they become very angry at him. Jesus’ followers would have preferred a quieter, less public faith, but in Verse 15, Jesus says, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.” The people listening to him were to bring light into the lives of everyone.
To bring light into the world in our own times is no easy thing, it means being prepared to be challenged, it means being prepared to annoy those who would prefer to keep things hidden. Jesus says that the light is to reach all who are in the house, it is to reach everyone in our communities, everyone in the world. As Christian people, that means we have to accept people very different from ourselves, that our churches might need to become very different people.
The third noun is “a city.” “A city built on a hill cannot be hidden,” says Jesus in Verse 14. Jesus’ followers would have thought about a walled hilltop city, a place that could be seen from a distance as people approached, a place that was the centre for all those who lived around. A city on a hill would have been a place that encompassed every sort of person and every sort of human activity. If Jesus’ followers were to be like a city on a hill, then every aspect of their lives would be seen and that they would need to be people of total integrity, otherwise, just as people would think badly of a city that was corrupt or dangerous, so they would think badly of followers whose lives were not as they should be.
Are we like a city on a hill? Our lives are complex, there are many aspects to them as there are many aspects to the life of a city, does every part of our own life stand scrutiny, or are we like a city that has dark and troubling parts? If we were told that we must be like a city on a hill, what would we need to change/
The fourth noun is “works.” In Verse 16, Jesus says, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Jesus is critical of the scribes and the Pharisees, he is critical of the priests in the Temple, because he sees their religion as something as outward. He sees the religion of his time as being about rules and regulations and rituals, and not about the things that matter to God. Jesus is telling his listeners that it is not enough just to do all the religious things, that their faith must be shown in their daily lives by what they do and how they live.
If people looked at what we do and how we lived, would they glorify our Father in heaven? Isn’t it more likely that they would think that our words were not matched by our works? If people judged our Christian faith not by anything that we said, but by watching us day by day, what would they make of it? Is our faith something that so fills our hearts that it is obvious in all we do, or are we no different from most people around us? If we were asked whether our life inspired someone to faith in God, how would we answer?
The four nouns, salt, light, a city and works, were a challenge to those to whom Jesus was speaking and they are a challenge to us. Expected to be salt and light, expected to be as a city set on a hill, expected to do works that bring glory to God, we can never rest content as we are.