(Isaiah 58, 1-9a; Matthew 5, 13-20)
“What are we here for?”
Over the last couple of weeks the Gospel readings have been telling us about the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, and the calling of his first disciples. And now, as we approach Lent, we turn to readings which set out the programme of action for his disciples, passages which begin to answer that question for them – and for us – “What are we here for?”
The programme of action is based on the covenant with Israel’s God set out in the Old Testament. Jesus says he has not come to do away with the Law of Moses, but to fulfil it, that is to go beyond legalism to a way of expressing the underlying intention of the Covenant Law. His programme, he says, asks his followers to go beyond what was previously demanded, to meet a higher standard of righteousness (which, as he has already taught them, encompasses not just acting in accordance with the law, but also justice, integrity, charity and a particular concern for the weak and vulnerable members of society). Unless they do even more than the teachers of the Law and the ultra-religious Pharisees, he tells them, they won’t really be under the rule of God (which is what entering the Kingdom of Heaven means).
The reading from Isaiah shows that the sort of life Jesus is asking his followers to live was already being spoken of as God’s will by the prophets of the Old Testament. It is from the prophecy of Third Isaiah, writing to the Jews who have returned to Judea after the exile in Babylon. Isaiah observes that they are trying to earn God’s approval by being ultra scrupulous about ritual and fasting – making a great fuss about being seen to follow all the rules. But, Isaiah tells them, this is not what God actually wants. The sort of ‘discipline’ God actually wants them to follow is not just about worship, but also about their everyday lives. It’s about what we now call ‘social justice’ – feeding the hungry and poor, providing shelter for the homeless, and freeing those who are oppressed by the structures of society, ensuring justice for all.
When we hear this passage, we inevitably hear echoes of the agenda for his ministry which Jesus proclaimed in the synagogue at Nazareth, recounted in the Gospel of Luke; and with the story of the Last Judgement, the separating of the Sheep and Goats, in Matthew 25. This again confirms that the gospel of social justice is not a trendy modern invention. It is what Third Isaiah said discipleship was all about in the 8th century BC; it is what Jesus said discipleship was all about in the 1st century AD. It is still what Christian discipleship is all about.
It is the answer to the question “What are we here for?”
We are often told there is a hunger for spirituality in today’s world. These passages tell us Christian spirituality is not to be discovered in withdrawal from the world, but in daily engagement with its realities. Christian discipleship is about politics and economics, about healing and housing human bodies, and removing the ‘yoke’ from the shoulders of the oppressed, whether that yoke be poverty, sickness or prejudice. It means working to oppose anything which prevents human flourishing.
So, our discipleship is to be lived out in service to the community. But how are we to carry out that service?
Jesus answers using two metaphors – light and salt. Both are ordinary common substances, both are God-given, not of human manufacture, both can be used to transform what surrounds them, to bring out the colour or flavour that is already there.
We have heard a lot about light in the readings over the last couple of months. It is a major theme of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. Light stands for vision, showing the right way, for promoting growth and health, even when it is not obvious how that can be done.
Our attitude towards light hasn’t changed much in the years since these words were spoken by Jesus, but our attitude to salt may have done. In a world before refrigerators and antibiotics, salt was important for flavouring food, but also for preserving it, and as an agent of purification and healing. Salt was a common substance then, but at the same time so valuable that Roman soldiers were paid with it. Nowadays it is still a common substance, but with little value, and we are very much aware that too much of it can not only spoil the taste of food, but also damage our health.
Nevertheless, the metaphor of salt warns Christian disciples to keep their faith sharp and alive. It also indicates the values of their faith may have a different taste, which contrasts with those of the world around. For us today, that might mean that Christians value the small rather than the big, the spiritual as well as the material, but also value community cohesion above individual satisfaction, and watch out for the vulnerable rather than having increasing personal wealth as their highest ambition. A comment made on the last day of the football transfer window highlights this: “I live in a world where £35 million is paid for a footballer, yet 60 disabled people lose their day centre because it costs £200K to run”. That is not a world where Christian salt is being effective.
But the metaphors of salt and light also warn Christian disciples that their values should permeate society, rather than dominating it. Too much salt makes food inedible. Too much light means that plants die, rather than flourish, and human beings cannot sleep. Christian dominance of society has not always proved beneficial either for society or for Christian discipleship. Particularly in today’s world, to insist that so called Christian values should be the only guide to law making and enforcement, to the exclusion of other values which people think are important, actually damages the Kingdom of Heaven rather than helping it to grow. Just as in cooking, the balance between adding to little salt and adding too much is a difficult judgement, so in community life, we need much prayer and wisdom to decide how far our Christian beliefs and practices need to be defended or even worse, imposed by law, or whether their best defence is the difference they make to society.
Christ summarised the Covenant Law in two simple phrases – love God and love your neighbour as yourself. Keeping this summary in mind should keep all of us from turning the Sermon on the Mount, or our commitment to social justice, or our devotion to certain paths of Christian discipleship into just another tick list of standards by which we judge people to be inside or outside the Kingdom or justify separating ourselves from those who make different judgements. Christ’s living out of the values of the Sermon on the Mount involved offering love and forgiveness to everyone, even to those who thought differently from him, and even to those who opposed and persecuted him. No matter what, the light of God shone through him, and showed up the limitations of legalism and separation. It is that different quality of life this passage urges us to seek.
Ultimately, it is up to each of us, both as individuals and in community, to decide how we can best be disciples of Jesus who bring the salt and light of God’s rule to whatever situations we find ourselves in.
Because that, today’s readings tell us, is what we are here for.