It was raining all day and it’s been cold for the last few, so, as I’m extremely sensitive to cold (my whole body aches to the bone and it takes me hours to warm up again), I stayed in while my husband went to church last night. I poked around in the archives of our church’s website and read the text of a homily preached at the beginning of last month, on the first section of the Sermon on the Mount after the Beatitudes: Matthew 5:13-20. Coincidentally, I’d been thinking about what it means to be salt and light…or, rather, what salt and light actually are – lately.
I like – as in, am healed by – the homilist’s main point that Jesus does not command his hearers to be salt and light, He simply says they ARE already salt and light. Are they salt and light because they do and say certain things? Because they are somehow special in and of themselves? Because they are Jesus’ disciples? The text is, once again, silent on a very important point…probably on purpose. We don’t know much about Jesus’ disciples, really: they were mostly fishermen minding their own business when Jesus pops up, tells them to follow Him and they do, reportedly asking no questions. We know they are complete blockheads, bickering over the most inconsequential trivialities, excelling, it seems, only at missing the point and eventually abandoning their teacher and friend when He needs them most. This is salt and light to the world?
And yet, if it wasn’t for this little band of coward-turned-fearless men, the “world” would not know of Jesus (the gospel still remains to be spread in several places, I realize). After the resurrection, the 12 disciples, known thenceforth to history at the apostles, took the good news of salvation and solidarity with God. Like the prophet Jeremiah, woe to them if they did not; they, emboldened by the defeat of death and the promise of the coming kingdom, couldn’t not preach, even if it meant their very lives. If it weren’t for a dozen clumsy fishermen, the “world” would still be in darkness. Were these men trying to “be light?” Perhaps. But, since Jesus called them salt and light before any of that – before anyone believed Him to be God, probably – it seems more likely that what Jesus was doing was naming them, calling out what they already are: Salt. Light.
At least, that’s the direction the homilist took it in at my church last month: being who we already are, that Jesus doesn’t ask his disciples to be anything different, but that they, as who and what they are, already are salt and light. I agree with all of this. “The glory of God is humanity fully alive,” St. Irenaeus is believed to have said. In other words, the salt and light of God is humanity fully alive. It sounds too good to be true, even, to say that the way you light and salt the earth is to be what you fully are: after all, I’m not, I don’t think, a missionary, a doctor, a researcher, an environmental engineer, etc. Neither, I must remind myself, were the apostles. (Of course, I don’t think I’m a pastor, evangelist, church planter, etc., either, but that’s beside the point for now).
One thing the homilist left out was instructions on exactly how to become who you already are, especially for those who have been given constant input since our most formative years that who and what we are is profoundly not okay. A short study in how salt and light are conventionally understood is not really that helpful: light generally produces heat, it drives out darkness, is opposite of heavy, no speed is faster than its own (that we’ve yet discovered) and salt is for flavor, taste and livening things up. Whatever personal-identity analogs could be drawn from this do not seem worth the time and stretch it would take me to make.
But there are two uses for salt that I’ve never heard mentioned in a sermon: salt can be used as a preservative and, where I’m from, big chunks of salt are used to break up ice/keep it from forming on the streets. Likewise, there’s an angle on light I’ve never heard anyone take: light both a wave and a particle. I think to become what we already are – and this is what I wish the homilist would have mentioned – we absolutely need each other. We need to be salt and light to each other (as well as to “the world”). That is, to go deep, we need to be wave-like and particle-like, depending on what the situation calls for (weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice, for example). And, as we go deep, we need to preserve the life we find in the waters and we need to gently (salt does it by lowering the freezing point of water) break up the ice we find in them or, if we can, keep any from forming at all.