“The ball is in your court” – “the squeaking wheel gets the grease” – are well-known idioms that probably have their equivalents in every language. Sometimes idioms are explained in their translation and English readers never know there is an idiom there. At other times, translators simply render the idiom literally into English and leave the reader to puzzle out its meaning. Unsurprisingly, there are also idioms in the Bible that are usually understandable in their context. But the idioms in the Bible – much as the ones in most languages – can also have detailed meaning that now and then escape the reader. So sometimes a knowledge of the Biblical cultures and languages is needed to help us grasp the meaning of a particular idiomatic expression. On this 5th Sunday of Epiphany we are asked to think about the generality of idiomatic expressions in the NT, and particularly consider one of Jesus’ better-known idioms – the one about salt and light. Luke (14:34f, 11:35) repeats Matthew’s version of it, and Mark (4:21, 9:50) makes tangential reference to light and salt. But as familiar as these sayings are, they require some serious word-study and careful interpretation
Of all the accounts of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew’s is particularly rich in idiomatic phrases. In 5:22 he reports Jesus as saying that ‘whoever calls his brother a fool deserves the hell of fire’ – a phrase that is literally ‘Gehenna of fire’. Gehenna is the name of a valley outside Jerusalem where (according to II Chron 28:3 and 33:6) sacrifices to the pagan god Moloch took place. In NT times this same valley was used as a place for burning trash – so its fires burned constantly and a pall of smoke was always over the place. It became an ideal picture for hell that Jesus identifies (Mt 13:42) as a fiery furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Additionally interesting, in the synoptic gospels the name Gehenna is almost exclusively used to refer to ‘the place of final punishment for the enemies of God’.
Perhaps because the idiomatic phrases about salt and light in today’s gospel reading are among the best-known of Jesus’ sayings, they are also among the most misunderstood. I suspect the main reason may be that too many readers and interpreters do not pay serious enough attention to the grammar of these sayings. Sometimes I forget some of the fundamentals of English grammar – maybe you do, too – so forgive me this side-bar. Just so we are all on the same page, I want to remind us that in our early grammar school education we learned that there are three moods – the indicative, the imperative, and the subjunctive – and how they function. The indicative mood states facts or asks questions; for example, ‘She is driving the car’. The imperative mood expresses a command or a request, as in ‘Drive the car’. In the subjunctive mood a wish or doubt is stated, as in ‘I want Mary to drive the car’.
My point is that in the Greek NT these sayings about salt and light are in the indicative mood. They do not say, as they would if they were in the imperative mood, that the disciples must become salt or light, that they are expected to be salt and light. Instead these sayings, in the indicative mood, suggest that the disciples are salt and light – that they are to be who they already are. Jesus has called them – they have responded to his call and they are expected to be what and who they are. They are already the salt that preserves and cures, and the light that illuminates the world with God’s saving knowledge. And that powerfully suggests that the season of Epiphany comes full circle, from the manifestation and showing forth of Jesus as ‘the light of the world’ to a similar mission for his followers to be illuminators of God’s saving grace. Of course, Jesus also used other metaphors to illustrate similar truths. He said that we are like mustard seeds, so tiny that they seem more like specks of dust than seeds – but that they be-come trees in which birds can build nests. He said that we are like leaven – an obsolete word for yeast – small in quantity but huge in effect. Just a tiny bit of yeast will transform a heavy lump of dough into a palatable loaf of bread. In the ancient world a hill posed serious challenges to an invading army – so towns were often built on hills for defensive purposes. A town on a hilltop is clearly visible and cannot be hidden from view. It sits there in plain sight. ‘You are like that – the light of the world,’ Jesus said, ‘so let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven’. His transforming point seems to be that while we might appear to be of little consequence in all the ways that the world measures consequence, his Father has given us the power to change everything about us.
Following our reading about salt and light, another idiomatic expression found in all three of the synoptic gospels [Mt 5:14-14, Mk 4:21-25, Lk 8:16-18] is what we know as the parable of the lamp under the bushel. The key idea here is that light – especially the light of Christ – needs to be revealed, not hidden. This is a bit puzzling because for us a bushel is a measure (8 gallons) of dry goods; so who in his right mind would put a lamp or a candle under a bushel? The answer is that early English translators preferred to use an obsolete word, ‘bushel’, for ‘bowl’. If we re-place ‘bushel’ with ‘bowl’, the idiom makes perfectly good sense. Light is not be placed under a bowl – so we place candles in a bowl that is underneath them – not vice-versa – in order that their light can shine bright.
Phos tou kósmou is a phrase Jesus used to describe himself and his disciples in the NT (cf Mt 5:14). It means ‘light of the world’ in Greek. In John 8:12 Jesus applies the title to himself: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life”. Again in John 9:5, the miracle of healing the blind is an episode that leads to John 9:39 where Jesus metaphorically explains that he came to this world so that the blind may see. Jesus claims to be light of the world: ‘when I am in the world, I am the Light of the World’. The use of the title ‘light of the world’ is similar to ‘bread of life’ in John 6:35 where Jesus states: “I am the bread of life: he who comes to me shall not hunger”.
In 1st c. Palestine salt was a preservative, a medicine, and a condiment. With no refrigeration and lakes and ponds that never froze, there were no icehouses that stored winter ice for the summer. So meat could only be kept for long periods if it was preserved by salting. Jesus didn’t miss the connection between the threatened decomposition of meat, the cultural cancers that eat away at us, and the need for a preservative. He seems to have known that both can go to pieces quickly. We know that truism all too well. Today people are dying in wars around the world – genocide is rampant in some nations – and we have learned that we are not safe from terrorists. In fact, more than 90 terrorist attacks in the US have been confirmed since 9.11.2001. We don’t have to look far to appreciate the plain sense of Jesus’ aphorism. In the face of malignant threats and demonic powers, he says that followers can make a huge difference.
I don’t often talk about religion and politics in sermons, but I am frequently reminded that some folks prefer that the Church stay completely out of the political thicket. I beg to disagree. The 1st Amendment to the Constitution does not mean that church and state are utterly incompatible and should be completely separate. And the 2nd Amendment means freedom for religion – not freedom from religion. So, apart from our Constitution, if we take seriously what our Lord said about being salt and light for the world, we cannot quietly ignore what’s going on in the public square. I’m not reluctant to mix God and politics in a nation founded “under God” because there are political issues in which, to use another idiom, it is the Church’s ox that is being gored.
Should church property be tax exempt? Should federal support be made available to students attending church-related schools? Should tax money pay for military chaplains? I heard about a couple touring the Capitol building. The guide pointed out the Senate Chaplain. “Does the Chaplain pray for the Senate,” asked the lady. “Oh, no,” said the guide, “he stands up, looks at the Senate, and prays for the country.” What about same-sex marriage, school prayer – capital punishment – abortion – sex education? These are clearly not exclusively political issues – but modern polytheism makes it easy to forget that religious convictions have a deep stake in them. Nowadays, in the wake of multiculturism and inclusiveness, and because religious commitments tend to be thin and vapid – the issue is increasingly not whether churches should be kept out of politics – but how churches, and specifically Christians, can engage the public square. Temptations to other ideologies are always present, so we need to be careful what we say. I am frequently reminded of Walter Rauschenbusch’s caution, that the doctrine of the Kingdom of God, of which Jesus Christ always spoke, has been gradually replaced by that of the Church.
We shouldn’t forget that Jesus also said that ‘if salt has lost its taste, its saltiness cannot be restored’. When that happens salt is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and ‘ground under foot’. That might keep some Christians out of the public square. But we know that salt is always salt – and that sodium chloride is a stable compound that doesn’t lose its taste. So what could Jesus have meant by this? Maybe Jesus was cautioning us to be alert to the impurities that threaten to water-down our saltiness.
Nowadays a day doesn’t pass that media do not feature some assault on our saltiness. A respected politician betrays his wife – the well-known pastor of a megachurch is been caught with his hand in the till – priests are discovered to have violated their vows – a physicians’ quality assurance board blithely acquits medical misconduct – putatively innocent people are killed and maimed by terrorists in markets, airports, mosques, and churches – a trusted friend deceives you and violates your trust. And not all of his happens in some far away place – to people we don’t know personally. Some of it happens right here in our own town and county and state. Who is going to work to put these things right? Who is going to be the preserving and curative salt that sustains decency and civility and charity and forgiveness. “Whom shall I send and who will go for me,” the Lord asked Isaiah.
Today’s gospel reading ends with Jesus saying – “I tell you that unless you show your-selves far better than the scribes and pharisees, you can never enter the kingdom of heaven”. I think his implicit question is what will we do with the salt and light that, by God’s mercy, we are? And I think he is talking to you and me. We are his salt – we are his light in the world. When John spoke of Jesus, he put it this way: ‘his life is the light of mankind – the light shines in darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it’. Today’s gospel reminds us that we are Jesus’ modern witnesses to the truth of that claim, the full-circle completion of the manifestation of the essential nature and meaning of who we are and what we are to do under God.
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Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University
Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.