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First Impressions: Matthew 5:13-20

February 1, 2011

There are three interesting and well known sections in this week’s gospel lesson, so you should be able to find something preachable.  Salt, light and law/teaching are the three units.  I will be dropping verse 20 from the reading in worship, but a sensitive and tactful preacher could use Jesus’ comment about the scribes and Pharisees in a helpful way.  Since I will be preaching the middle section about light, I prefer verse 20 not be the last thing worshippers hear from Jesus before the sermon.

5:13 Since every preacher will likely be using Jesus’ own images as the dominant one for the sermon, I suggest studying each image in depth as a way to get the creative juices flowing.  For example, salt has a long history in human culture.  You may find a relevant connection to the sermon in one of the many ways salt has been used.  Additionally, most parishioners will have some personal image or memory of salt that that could be used to draw them in.

I simply did an Internet search on “salt” and immediately discovered several interesting sites and facts.  I was amused (but not very surprised) to discover that there is a Salt Institute, “the association of salt companies dedicated to helping consumers to unlock the secrets of salt, sodium chloride.”  Who knew salt has secrets?!  You can also pursue the uses of salt in food preparation, its connections to health, or its chemical properties.  Somewhere in there is a unique handle on which to hang your sermon.

Of course, the main issue is Jesus’ own understanding of the image when he said, “You are the salt of the earth.”  Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock note that the “you” is plural, indicating the community, and not simply individual believers (The People’s New Testament Commentary [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004], p.29).  It might be said that the Church is the salt of the earth.

Clearly, salt has a particular function, and Jesus seems to think that function could atrophy or disappear.  Does that mean that we (plural, the Church) lose our role and function as prophet of the kingdom of heaven if we fail to perform faithfully?  If so, what does Jesus think of as our function?  The rest of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) may give some specific clues.  William Willimon seems to think that Matthew 28 is the key to understanding this pericope (“Teaching (and Doing) What Jesus Commands,” Pulpit Resource, Jan-Mar 2001, pp.25-28.).  Douglas Hare wrote that these images do not describe a status, but a function: “You are salt, yes, but for the earth, not for yourselves.  You are light, but for the whole world, not for a closed fellowship” (Interpretation: Matthew [Louisville: John Knox, 1993], p.44).

5:14-16 These are my verses for this week.  I will be highlighting the communal character of our saltiness and light giving.  I am thinking of a bank of lights (such as a scoreboard in a large stadium) or the letters of a neon sign.  When several lights are missing, what is the effect?  If nothing else, the viewer might seem to have the notion that the sports team or business is shoddy, rundown and not interested.

A quote from Boring and Craddock is helpful: “The primary function of light is not to be seen, but to let things be seen as they are” (The People’s New Testament Commentary, p.29)  This makes me think of a nightlight or flashlight.  It also means that, like John the Baptist, our goal is not to draw attention to ourselves, but to point to Someone else.

I also found some good online sites about light (“The Science of Light,” “Physics4Kids: Light & Optics” and “Light!”.)  Its physics are particularly interesting (especially the fact that it sometimes behaves as a particle and sometimes as a wave), and you can find more than you ever needed to know—certainly more than enough to fill a sermon illustration.  A potentially helpful quote came from Four-squared Explore:

All light comes from atoms.  Atoms that produce light have either gained energy by        absorbing light from another source or by being struck by other particles.  It is this “extra  energy” that causes an atom to give off light. The light being emitted is carrying off the extra energy.

There must be some theological connection to make.  What does it mean that we gain energy by absorbing light and then share it with the world?

Regarding the concept of hiding your light, some saints among you will find a creative way to use the Monty Python sketch “How Not to Be Seen.” If you do, please let me know how it goes.  If you aren’t the type of preacher that warms to Python-style humor, then you have probably chosen the wrong profession.  Try accountancy.

5:17-20 I thought Willimon’s sermon in Pulpit Resource (“Teaching (and Doing) What Jesus Commands,” Pulpit Resource, Jan-Mar 2001, pp.25-28.) was moderately helpful, so if you are planning to focus on these final verses, do check it out.  Willimon focuses on the teaching element of our faith.  We can be intellectually rigorous and honest, while still maintaining a Christian spirit.  I particularly like his reminder that people come into our churches with lots of serious and important questions, and we should be able to help them form their own useful answers.  Willimon might add the word “orthodox” to that last sentence.

I think the key ideas in this last section are that Jesus affirmed the Law and the prophets, as well as his Jewish tradition generally.  Certainly, there are some aspects he railed against, but then again, whose tradition doesn’t have some soft spots?

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