There are a number of biblical texts that have entered our culture’s vernacular, most every one of them having the Word of God deleted from their meanings. We read an account of someone who rescues a dog trapped on an icy pond and that rescuer is naturally dubbed Rover’s “Good Samaritan.” Nothing wrong with being a helper at all. It’s just that we have left behind Jesus parable with its terrible story of our being helpless and our own rescuer being the hated Samaritan enemy. Our Gospel Lesson is among this collection of the culture’s favorite texts. An odd, somewhat cranky person who doesn’t hold back what he or she thinks, “Really a salty kind of guy!” we hear. Or the kindly comment that someone is “the salt of the earth.” The light image in this Sermon on the Mount text also comes in for its own domestication. A friend who is rather shy about promoting themselves is admonished, “Come on. Stop hiding your light under a bushel basket!” Now there is nothing wrong with these domesticated biblical images. Most are rather positive in their own way. But there is only one problem. None of them get at
the profound and radical imperatives that Jesus addresses to us when he picks up the imagery of salt and light.
Perhaps it’s best to begin by digging around the meanings of salt and light for those crowds of folks who attended to our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. What resonates in them when Jesus speaks of their being salt of the earth and light of the world? The images have several commonalities. Both were—in First Century Galilee—“precious commodities,”…Both sustain life,” as one commentator put it. Neither could be available simply by reaching for the box of Kosher Salt in the cabinet or by turning on the wall switch. Our commentator indicates one
other important quality about the salt and light. “They only fulfill their purpose when used, poured out.” Yes, they are there as gifts of the creation, but they become valuable, even essential to the human family when used to preserve life, together. Without salt, quite literally, human life is impossible. In fact, all animals need sodium chloride (salt) in their diets to enable nerve function, to make it possible to digest food, and to regulate blood pressure. (Although we are aware that we can overdo the salt in our food and wind up with high blood pressure.) Saltiness is also one of the five basic tastes we humans come equipped with. Without salt, we die.
Likewise, being the light of the world for Jesus’ hearers meant that the darkness has ended. Ordinarily, except during the light of day and the temporary stays against the darkness such as the use of a lamp or candle, the dark was the “normal” mode of existence. No wonder that this dominance of darkness became a metaphor for all sorts of life-threatening experiences. Evil? It dwelt in the darkness of human hearts. Enemies? They lurked in the dark ready to
ensnare us. Disease and the power of death? An always present reality. No wonder that when James Weldon Johnson wrote a series of African American sermons in the style of those folk preachers during slavery, the absence of light before it was created by God was so foreboding:
And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp. 1
Of course, that darkness was also a very present tense depiction of life among a people enslaved by their brutal masters. Here, too, it was “blacker than a hundred midnights down in a cypress swamp.”
And the work of creating began:
Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That's good!
Here, too, the power of the light gained a powerful meaning for enslaved Black people. The old darkness is “rolled up on one side,” but God made the light to shine on the other. Here is a promise that darkness will not always prevail. God has made the light as a liberating act of justice and mercy. When Jesus announces that we are the light of the world, he is saying no less than conveying an identity upon us as those who are commissioned as a stay against the darkness. We are salt for the world and we are light, present tense realities ordained by Christ.
Of course, there are times when God’s people in Christ can forfeit or lose sight of their identity. The salt, Jesus continues, can lose its taste. Our presence in the world can become bland, tasteless, useless. Only fit for being “thrown out and trampled under foot.” And there are times when the church acts to mitigate God’s light in Jesus Christ. In a most incredibly silly action, we light our lamp but put it under a bushel. Here, too, the light that has been graced to us in Christ is rendered all but useless. We make peace with a world of darkness. But notice the
difference Jesus makes between the utter demise of being salty Christians and those decisions and actions that place our light under a bushel. The first outcome is final. Having lost our saltiness, Jesus proclaims, we are not good for much of anything. But look at the churches who have put their light under a bushel. Dr. Amy Oden, a writer and teacher on Christian spirituality notes the difference as she describes the bushel that hides the light.
Jesus refers to a vessel big enough to cover a lamp. He describes a light not
snuffed out but covered up. The light is not extinguished. It is rendered ineffective. 2
There can be all kinds of reasons that a congregation can put its light under a bushel instead of placing it on a lampstand “where it gives light to all in the house.” Sometimes, losses in the past keep the members grieving about a prior glory and in turning away from God’s present, they put their light under a bushel. No more expectation of any new thing. In fact, any vision of a new present and future is immediately snuffed out and the light remains under the bushel. Other
parishes have had some major trauma in the past, a wound that endures as the often unspoken reality. No thought of removing that bushel from over their life together. It is held firmly in place as a way of keeping the pain and grief under control.
Other congregations may attempt to overcome the darkness by envisioning themselves as the light itself. They set themselves up to be a megachurch filled with glory, their “spiritual” leaders promoted as celebrities. So they install rock-concert grade lighting to illuminate the stage where their “lead pastor” will give the congregation a TED-talk on Jesus and their life in the house of the ambassador. Ironically, the more they strive to turn up their own light, their own techno-driven Sunday productions, the more they clamp the bushel down on their God-given light. These and other occasions are times when churches decide to hide their light under a bushel. In some cases, the originating reason may be long ago, even mostly forgotten. In other parishes, the cataracts of grief keep a people from seeing the light. Still, it is crucial to remember that the light is not dimmed beyond God’s grace. It has just become hidden from plain sight.
But at least this is certain. We Christian people who put some kind of bushel over the Christ-light cannot extinguish that light. It may be rendered ineffective, as Oden notes, but it is not extinguished. There is Divine grace here, even when we have put some kind of bushel over the light. Through careful therapy and prayer, by way of the help of friends and family, or even in the midst of disillusionment with attempts to be the light on the terms of our culture’s definitions of success, the old bushels can be taken away and God’s light in Christ will shine forth.
And here is some further wisdom about such bushels. In some way or other, in most every parish, big or tiny bushels still hide some of Christ’s light. The good news is that “The light is not extinguished.” In fact, just imagine what kind of light would shine forth if out in the dumpster behind many churches, lots of old, broken down bushel baskets were piled up to be taken away. No longer hiding the light. Once God rolled out the light at creation, and bent down to speak in the Blessed Virgin’s ear, the light abides. It will never be overcome.
So we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. As salty Christians, we are about ministries of justice and caring service in our world that is filled with so much darkness. And in spite of those infernal bushels, Jesus declares us “light of the world.” That light which is Christ will never be extinguished. With our bushels removed and set aside, the Good News shines brightly and the truth of the Gospel is not hidden.
We are the light of the world. Thanks be to God.
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