Brief synopsis of the readings: From Isaiah 58 we read about the requirement to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked and stay close to family. By this our light will rise in the darkness and our shadows will disappear. Matthew’s Gospel continues from last week. Jesus tells his followers that they are salt of the earth and light of the world. But salt that has gone bad cannot be made good again and light must be allowed to shine before all people.
When someone is referred to as “the salt of the earth” we have a sense that this person isn’t just “nice” but more than that. This person lives his life in a way that others should emulate. Jews call such a person a “mensch.” But do we think much about what “salt of the earth” means? Perhaps not.
Salt has always been seen as a preservative, particularly with meats and that allowed our ancestors to store food and travel. Books have been written on its crucial role in the develop of civilizations. Along with this we’ve also recognized how it seasons food. Funny thing is, salt by itself is fairly useless: nobody eats a “saltburger” and nobody drinks a cup of salt water for taste. But a small amount of salt can preserve or season a much larger plate of food.
We look at light much the same way. Light, in and of itself, really does nothing. We don’t light a light unless there is something we want to illuminate. We use images of light out of darkness in an overwhelming positive way. When the PBS journalist Gwen Ifill died in 2016 one of her colleagues described her this way: “You could read by the light of her smile.” And again a small amount of light can make a huge difference. The human rights organization Amnesty International’s symbol is a lit candle surrounded by barbed wire. They attempt to free prisoners and ensure basic human rights on ground level. Members write letters and use individual influence in the hopes that when many voices are joined in common purpose they can defeat evil structures and organizations. Furthermore, US President George H.W. Bush spoke of something called a “thousand points of light.” Again his organization of the same name attempts to bring overwhelming light by joining together many people and focusing their light.
Last week I spoke about how this 5th chapter of Matthew really begins Jesus’ public ministry and comes when there are relatively few followers. Was Jesus just foreshadowing a time when his followers were more numerous? Well, perhaps not.
If we look to the Amnesty International logo we see the candle and barbed wire. Even a small candle will provide enough light to see, no matter how much barbed wire surrounds it. We speak about points of light but there is no such thing as a point of darkness; the barbed wire cannot blot out the light but without the lit candle there is only darkness. And while only one lit candle there is light, there is more light if there are more candles. We are light of the world not because we have the super candle but because we are among others, even if our candle is small. The famed anthropologist Margaret Mead once said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
My wife is a pediatrician and she has done a great deal of advocacy work with and for children in her career. A few years ago she heard a lecture on ending child abuse and the lecturer told them that when they act on behalf of one child they may be only a “drop in the bucket” but if they don’t because the problem is so overwhelming they are a “drop out of the bucket.” This thought is worth some thought. I once worked with another chaplain who asked me how I defined the word karma. I was stumped at the time for a coherent answer but after a great deal of thought this is what I would say: “Whenever someone does something kind or generous that person benefits by living in a world that is a little kinder and a little more generous. Everyone else does also but that doesn’t take anything away from that person or his actions.”
Looked another way, most of us live in countries where we elect our leaders by voting. Except in the rarest of cases an individual vote does not decide an election and it’s easy to think our vote “doesn’t count” but it does. When we vote we are part of a collection of points of light that advances our values and dreams in how we are governed. The absence of one of those points of light may not be all that noticeable but it’s no less important.
And salt is perhaps more subtle in the effect on the world but it matters too. We still use it as a preservative but last century we learned of the link between salt and high blood pressure and salt became suspect. We hear about high salt content in foods we wouldn’t expect but that’s because they season food that we already like. When I was a seminarian I lived with a priest who needed to eat unsalted bread; it was awful. We don’t think much about how much salt seasons bread but it does.
So when we are salt of the earth what does that mean? Like light a small amount goes a long way, but being salt of the earth can also mean we can be kind an generous anonymously. We can hold open doors for people we don’t know, or we can give blood. We can donate anonymously or we can invest in schools in poor neighborhoods.
Finally it’s worth noting that Jesus doesn’t tell us to become salt of the earth and light of the world. He told his disciples that they already were those things. I’m going on a limb here but I suspect that everyone reading or hearing this can already point to areas of kindness and generosity. And so in the midst of finding what we can do let us acknowledge, respect and revere what we are already doing.