A sermon for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany, February 5, 2017
St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
Last week I said that Jesus’ entire life and teaching was commentary on the Old Testament. It was not just in our own day that people thought that Jesus was teaching something different from the scriptures of Israel. Some people liked Jesus for bringing what they thought of as novelty and new fashions, while other people hated him for upsetting the ways in which their understanding of the rules supported their habitual ways of life—and even made it easy for them to lord it over others and prosper at their expense.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is not an innovative set of rules to put a new group into power. Jesus calls us to account for how we live in the world in which we find ourselves.
“You are the salt of the earth.” I have always had difficulty in understanding what this means. I won’t say that I’ve figured it out and it’s now crystal clear, but here is something I’ve discovered. Both times that Jesus says this in the Gospels it is followed by the phrase which our translation renders, “but if salt has lost its taste.” The translators do their best, but they’re struggling with an idiom that doesn’t fit in our language. But the word that’s translated, “lost its taste” actually means “becomes foolish.”
So what would it mean if Jesus stood up and said, “You are salt, but if the salt has become foolish, it’s no longer good for anything?” It’s a jarring figure of speech, you have to pay attention to it and try to figure it out. One commentator on this observed that “salt is to food, as wisdom is to life.” A foolish chef, who didn’t season, would have tasteless food. While it is difficult to avoid salt nowadays, a diet with no salt leads to severe problems with muscle contraction, water balance in the body and neurological problems. Without salt, you die. Likewise, without wisdom, the life of people or a society becomes selfish, inconsiderate, unstable—even when the rules and structures are fundamentally sound. Approaching rules without wisdom yields a society with defective human bonds and imbalance that causes it to fall apart.
Jesus says, “if the salt has become foolish, how can its wisdom be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.” What Jesus is doing is not dismantling rules or traditions, he is bringing the blessing of the life of God to this world.
Living that life is not automatic. Someone mentioned the other day that one of the blessings of this parish is the wisdom of many people, who have gained that wisdom by living many years. She was right. As time goes by and we get experience, it becomes clearer what things will work and how they will work; what the consequences of anyone’s actions or non-actions might be—sometimes in subtle ways that aren’t so easily explained. Of course, some people become skilled in stealing people’s money or abusing others—there’s a certain kind of wisdom in old criminals. That’s not the only sort of foolish wisdom that some pursue. But if we spend a life, seeking to be compassionate, or honest, merciful or courageous as we learn in following Jesus, then our wisdom will grow. We see the fruits of decisions and learn better how to shape what we do for best results. When Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth,” he is honoring the wisdom that is in each of us.
At the same time, we need to be humble about our wisdom: it’s just a little seasoning. No one is wise enough to control the whole planet. No one’s power does more than influence the flavor of life a bit. But if we abandon the way of God’s compassion, and our salt becomes foolish, all of our purported wisdom is nothing—just trodden underfoot.
“You are the light of the world,” is a parallel illustration. Jesus is encouraging us—that is, urging us to courage. Our life in his love is nothing to be ashamed of or hidden, our wisdom is to be shared. “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” It’s not that we gain heaven by our good works—what Jesus is saying is that the fruits of our wisdom glorify God. Scripture is the repository of wisdom over countless generations. And when our traditions and practices are faithful to the love of God in Christ they convey the distilled wisdom of the saints of the church throughout the ages. Yet the “law and the prophets” and the “teaching of the church” are not legal formulas to bludgeon your opponents and reward your cronies—they are wisdom to be seasoned by the salt of yourselves—not the foolish salt, but the flavorful salt of your knowledge of God’s compassion.
As St. Paul says in our epistle today:
“We do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak of God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heard conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him”—these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit.”
The teaching of Jesus which we are exploring in the Sermon on the Mount fulfills the law and the prophets, revealing the Spirit by guiding us to understand God’s will in the wisdom, mercy and compassion of God.