GOSPEL, FIRST READING & PSALM TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
So the reading is from Matthew chapter 5:13-16 — it is a shorter Gospel this week — and it says this:"You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men. "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
Okay, so let’s look at each of these images separately. First, we will begin with the salt of the earth. What does Jesus mean by calling his disciples the salt of the earth? Well in the Old Testament on several occasions — like in the book of Job 6:6 — salt is described as being used like we use it today, to give food flavor. So if you want to add flavor to food, you are going to put salt into the meal. And if you don't have any salt, the meal will be tasteless, it will be bland. And that clearly seems to be the primary meaning here because notice what Jesus is saying, “if salt has lost its taste, how shall it be restored?” In other words, it is not good for anything, so you would just throw it away. Now there is a twist though here and many people have pointed it out. It is this — it is real simple — real salt doesn't lose its flavor, it doesn't become unsalty.
So this is a classic example — we will see this throughout the Gospel Matthew — of one of Jesus’ parables or teachings where he will have something that's kind of unexpected or a surprise or a little bit of a twist. Kind of like we just saw with the Beatitudes last week. “Blessed are they” or “happy are they who mourn.” What!? What are you doing? Jesus uses this all the time to get our attention, to call our attention to some deeper truth that he is trying to illuminate. So he's not talking about real salt — real salt doesn't lose its flavor. If it did lose its flavor, however, what good would it be? It would be worthless, and it would just be worth throwing out and being trampled underfoot. So what Jesus is doing here is he's trying to point to the disciples and he is using a metaphor. They are like salt, and they're meant to add something to the world, to add some kind of flavor to the world, and if they don't have it themselves, if they lose that saltiness themselves, they’re worthless, they are not living up to who they are called to be as disciples of Jesus.
Now with that said, this is kind of a strange metaphor, it seems a little bit weird unless you add a second dimension of meaning to it. In the Old Testament, salt is not simply used to refer to adding flavor to just any meal. In the book of Leviticus, it is very specifically described as adding flavor to a certain meal. Namely the sacrifices in the Temple. So if you go back to the book of Leviticus 2:13 just for a second — this isn’t in the lectionary, but I think it's important background —it says this (it’s describing how to prepare sacrifices in the tabernacle):
You shall season all your cereal offerings with salt; you shall not let the salt of the covenant with your God be lacking from your cereal offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.That is Leviticus 2:13, and we see the same thing in other passages in the Old Testament. So for example, in the book of Numbers 18:19, it talks about the salt of the covenant; in the book of Ezekiel 43:24, it talks about how the priest — before they would offer sacrifice — they would always sprinkle it with salt. If we go back to Leviticus 2:13 and we look at the context there, the kind of sacrifice that the salt is being added to is known as a cereal offering. Now that can be misleading for an English reader because when we think of cereal, we think of a modern-day breakfast cereal, whether your favorite cereal is Froot Loops, Frosted Flakes or it might be Cap'n Crunch. Obviously that is not what the book of Leviticus is talking about here. The cereal offering is is a translation of the Hebrew word minchah, which literally means just a bread or a grain offering. So you had these cereal offerings that would often be offered to God in the form of a caked bread — sometimes mixed with oil — and interestingly often offered on the altar with bread and wine, so as an offering of bread and wine . So it was kind of like a meal that you would share with God. So the salt is added to the cereal offering to signify the covenant banquet between you and God. It is something that is essential for a sacrifice that is being offered to the Lord. “With all your offerings you shall offer salt,” Leviticus says. So there may be a deeper meaning going on when we go back to the Sermon on the Mount.
A number of scholars have suggested that when Jesus refers to his disciples as the salt of the earth, he is not just talking about common everyday salt that is used to give flavor to an everyday meal, but that he's in a sense using this as a metaphor and likening them to the salt of the covenant sacrifices that would be offered to God in the temple. And this makes a lot of sense if we look at the rest of the New Testament. For example, in Romans 12 Paul is going to call the Christians in Rome to offer their bodies as a living sacrifice to the Lord. In other words, that the Christian vocation is not just to offer sacrifice to God, but to become a sacrificial offering to the Lord for the salvation of the world in union with Christ, who is going to offer himself as the ultimate sacrifice on the cross and then the ultimate sacrifice in the true cereal offering, the bread offering of the Eucharist.
So this is a really deep and rich metaphor that Jesus is using here, that the disciples are called to be the salt of the earth that is going to season the world so that the world itself, in a sense, might be offered up to God as a pleasing sacrifice, as a cereal offering that will bind him to the world in the new and everlasting covenant. Now obviously that is getting a little ahead of ourselves, we haven’t gotten to the Last Supper yet, but you can already see the seeds of that kind of sacrificial theology just in the very metaphor that Jesus is using here. “You are the salt of the earth.” Obviously too, the negative dimension of that is that if the disciples themselves lose their “saltiness,” in other words, if they break covenant with God, if they don't remain faithful to God, then there is no way that they're going to be able to sanctify the world and bring the world to God as an offering to him in sacrifice and in the worship of the New Covenant. So there is a lot hidden in a little with this saying here.
SECOND READING TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
He then goes on to elaborate this. Notice, however, it isn’t just the message of crucifixion, because he goes on to say:
...I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power… (1 Corinthians 2:3-4)
What does that mean? Well, this is interesting. It seems like what Paul is saying here is, I didn’t try to impress you with arguments that would give you rational motives of credibility for believing the Gospel. Instead, what I did is I preached the fact of Christ crucified, and then I gave you motives of credibility for believing that Jesus Christ had come and that He had been crucified for your redemption through demonstrations of the Spirit and power. What does that mean? Probably means that he accompanied his preaching with the working of miracles. And this is something we tend to forget.
If you go back, for example...let’s turn to the book of Acts. The Church doesn’t have this in the lectionary for today, but it’s one of those parallels that’s helpful for us to remember.
many of us are quite familiar—from reading the Gospels over and over and over again—that Jesus was a miracle worker...that Jesus was a wonder worker...that one of the things Jesus does in the Gospels in order to move people to believe His message is that He verifies and validates the message He’s proclaiming by performing supernatural actions, by performing extraordinary signs and extraordinary wonders...or performing miracles, as we would call them today, to move people to believe His message. So it’s one thing to say, trust me, believe me, I’m telling you the truth. I was sent by God. I’ve got a message from God. It’s another thing to proclaim a message from God and also, by the way, validate it by performing extraordinary signs and wonders that can only be carried out through supernatural power or supernatural intervention...through divine power.
This is one of the motives of credibility for believing Jesus...was precisely His performance of miracles. And sometimes we tend to forget that not only—according to the Gospels—is Jesus a wonder worker, but according to the Acts of the Apostles, so are the apostles...and not just the Twelve, but also Paul himself. So for example, in Acts 18, we have the account of Paul traveling to Corinth and beginning to evangelize there. But in Acts 19, after Paul leaves Corinth and he comes to Ephesus, we hear about Paul’s activities as a miracle worker. In Acts 19:11 and following, for example, it says this:
...God did extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.
And then it goes on to give a famous story here:
Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists [this is in the city of Ephesus] undertook to pronounce the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul preaches.” Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?” And the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, mastered all of them, and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. And this became known to all residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks; and fear fell upon them all; and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled. Many also of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. And a number of those who practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all; and they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver.
That is a lot of money.
So the word of the Lord grew and prevailed mightily.
Alright, so notice. What is Acts describing there? It’s a factor that we sometimes forget about in the missionary activity of Paul. Paul’s missionary activity, according to Acts, is never just...he’s a really good preacher, he’s really persuasive, and so he goes around converting Jews and Greeks to believe that Jesus is the Messiah. Acts tells us over and over again that not only does Paul preach persuasively, not only does Paul preach using the Scriptures, showing prophecy and fulfillment in the life of Jesus, but he also performs signs and wonders to back up his preaching. He performs miracles that testify to the truth of his preaching.
And it’s fascinating that in Acts 19, notice here, it says that Paul himself performed miracles by his hands. But it also says that they would touch handkerchiefs or pieces of cloth to Paul—they would touch them to his body—carry them away to the sick, and diseases would leave the sick, and evil spirits would come out of the possessed.
So in other words, both healings and exorcisms were performed simply by taking a piece of cloth and touching it to Paul and then bringing it to someone who was sick or bringing it to someone who was possessed. So the portrait of Paul in Acts is that he is so filled with the Holy Spirit, he’s so filled with the power of God, that an object—a material object like a cloth or a piece of linen—could be touched to his body so that the holiness and power of Paul is communicable...and then can be brought to someone who is possessed or someone who is sick and perform exorcisms or healing.
Now you can imagine why, if that’s taking place, especially among Greeks, who are very open to the supernatural—I mean, it’s a polytheistic context. It’s not like a secular context today. In the ancient world, most people believe in the existence of visible powers, whether it be gods or goddesses, demons, or spirits—whatever it might be. They’re completely open to the supernatural. The question is just...which supernatural, invisible power do you serve? Who are you in covenant with? Who do you sacrifice to? Who do you offer prayers to? And that kind of thing. That’s really what the question is...with whom is my allegiance? Not, do these powers exist? I mean, there were some skeptics who argue that.
The vast majority of people—common people—in the Greco-Roman world accepted the reality of the supernatural. So when Paul brings the message of the Gospel, he doesn’t just say hey, take my word for it. He accompanies the proclamation of the Gospel with miracles of healing and with exorcisms like we see in the book of Acts.
So when he’s writing to Corinth—if you turn back to 1 Corinthians there in chapter 2—he’s...and he’s telling them, look, I didn’t come to you with philosophical wisdom. I don't’ have a phD from the University of Alexandria. What I brought to you was the message of Christ crucified of your redemption. And I also demonstrated to you through the Spirit and through power, so:
...that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:5)
So ultimately, the faith that Paul brings to the Corinthians is not a human opinion. It doesn’t rest on the power of Paul’s reason. It doesn’t rest on the power of Paul’s intellect—how smart he is. It rests on the power of God, which is manifest both in the preaching and in the signs and wonders that he’s performed through the Spirit and through the power of God.
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