Matthew 5:13-20 || Jesus’s response to the shifting tides
a reflection by Dan Spragg
There are two great questions that constantly plague humanity. ‘Who are we?’ and ‘What are we to do?’ Most people are wise enough to note that these two are related, the second flowing from the first. These are ‘great’ questions because they are fundamental questions, they are foundational; without them it is easy to become lost and get blown about by whatever opinions, words or actions we are surrounded by. In times of change, it becomes most important to dig into these questions. These questions are ones that each generation of individuals and communities have to answer for themselves, especially if they want to live a life of meaning, one that is more than simply existing or surviving.
At the time of Jesus some strong currents were forcing quite the time of change upon the people. One author describes Jesus entering the social-political-religious scene of the time as a “perfect storm” A perfect storm being one that has the potential for ultimate destruction. On one hand there was the global military superpower of the day, the Roman Empire, flexing its muscles. On the other there was the Nationalistic hopes of Israel, fed by a long history of cultural hopes and dreams. And to tip it over the edge, to turn it into the perfect storm, in strides Jesus, claiming a different way with different goals, different hopes, and different means, that clashed with both the Roman aspiration and the Jewish establishment. Some would say it isn’t a surprise at all that he was killed. Matthew writes his gospel a generation after Jesus to a community of Jewish-Christians trying to follow the way of Jesus and make sense of how it sat with their Jewish heritage. As if that wasn’t hard enough, the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. Not only are they living in the aftermath of Jesus turning things upside down, the cultural and religious centre of all they’ve known has been destroyed by the Romans. We could sum up the entire book of Matthew as trying to address one question – how do we cope in the midst of massive change? I believe that not only does this chaotic context give weight to what Jesus said and did and to what Matthew was trying to say to his community, but also it makes it very relatable for us. One would have to have their head in the sand to not see our day and age as one of massive upheaval and change.
In the midst of everything they’ve known being thrown into confusion Matthew has Jesus proclaim who they are and what they are to do. In the midst of all this change Jesus has something to say. The Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew chapters 5 – 7 is Jesus announcing to them in the midst of chaos a new order of things, a new vision of the world. He proclaims to them who they are as the community of God, and therefore what they are to do. Of course, his answers and instructions of how they were to be aren’t straightforward, they were disruptive, but that is the way to cope with change isn’t it? It is to lean in and stretch towards something else because whatever the old was, well its time has come. Jesus responds to the changing age not with reaction but with a fresh interpretation of what it meant to be the community of God.
This idea of fresh interpretation is important. I’m not going to go into too much detail, but I would like to note quickly a few key points from today’s reading. Who are we? And, what are we to do? In response to the community’s searching in the midst of massive change, Jesus says, ‘Salt, Light, law, prophets, and righteousness.’
You are the Salt of the earth, don’t lose your saltiness. This is about distinctiveness and flavour. Jesus was saying: You – the community of God, don’t lose your distinctiveness, your unique flavour. This part of the sermon comes immediately after the beatitudes so it is easy to identify what that uniqueness might be. You who are the poor, the mourners, the meek, the ones who hunger for what is good and right; you who are the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers; you who are persecuted for God’s sake; you who are blessed, you who are valued by God, you who know this way of God as right and good – you are the salt of the earth – hold on to this distinctive flavour, for it will add to the earth what salt adds to food. Oh, and, you are also the light of the world. Lights are to be seen, and used to spread their light in all the dark places. You who are the light of the world, give light, help things grow, illuminate the way, shine brightly on what needs to be seen. This is who you are. This is what you are to do.
He then goes on to say, ‘Don’t think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets; I have come not to do away with, but to accomplish them.’ It sounds like there were some who thought that Jesus was disregarding the law and prophets – in other words, that he was throwing away their scriptures – the basis for their legal and religious life. But here Jesus says quite the opposite. He had not come to abolish, but to accomplish. In saying this he firmly plants himself within the tradition of their scriptures. What he is doing with his ministry is best understood as interpretation. Not one of the smallest letters of the law will pass away until it is accomplished. How that is done, and what that looks like might be different, but it will be in congruence with what the Law and the Prophets say. A fresh interpretation for a new day, innovating a new way while holding on to the heart of what has gone before. That was what Jesus was doing then and there. That might be something to note as being equally important now and here.
The last little bit is ‘righteousness.’ As well as having a dig at the Pharisees and Scribes, the establishment of the day, Jesus is alluding here to the heart of what he is meaning. Righteousness is about the qualities exhibited in one’s behaviour. In other words, it is about character. To live in righteousness, is to live with the character formation of being a member of God’s household. The way you are in your living, the qualities you exhibit being in congruence with God’s ways, that is what is important. The Pharisees and Scribes were rather concerned with quantity. Do this, do this, do this… to call it legalistic is almost a simplification. It had become virtually impossible to keep all the laws and various by-laws that had emerged. Jesus says here, being a member of God’s way isn’t about quantity, it’s about quality.
With these, Jesus addresses those big questions. Who are you? What are you to do? Well, you are a community Salt and Light that is founded on a long and good tradition of living in God’s ways, so, live it out to the core of your being. Live as Salt, live as Light, live in fulfillment of what has come before. Live in the spirit of God’s commands, live from what you already have that launches you into the future. Jesus says, this is who you are and what you are to do and I am here to show you the way. In a time of massive social, political, cultural and religious upheaval, this is what Jesus offered them – a different way, a radical way, but not an unfounded way.
The zeitgeist of our age seems to be one of massive change, a time of constant flux. Our old traditions in a number of areas are straining to breaking point under the changing tides of both thought and practice. Some have already snapped. We see it of course in the church, but also in education, in the workforce, in social settings, in the food industry, in agriculture, in our cultural understanding of what it means to be a New Zealander – to name something close to home on this Waitangi week. Language, te reo, technology, global awareness, climate awareness, economics… it’s all changing. In a way we are as humanity on a massive shift in what we understand as what it means to be human. Who are we and what are we to do? This is what we are wrestling with and they are THE questions for us as church to wrestle with in the midst of it all.
Matthew wants to say to that early Christian community in the midst of their massive upheavals that Jesus knew the way forward. This is a universal message for us too. So, how are we to be salt and light? What is it for us to not do away with what is taught in the Scriptures, to not do away with Jesus’s teaching and yet not to fall into the trap of legalism and fundamentalism and just doing things ‘the way they’ve always been done?’ What is it for us to be an interpreting community? As we wrestle with God’s way at the intersection of our culture, massive change, and the love of God, what are we to do as the church? What is it for ministry – the service of good news and God’s love to one another and the traditional forms of worship, study, fellowship, discipleship? What is it for pastoral care – the care of one another driven by selfless love and the traditional forms of who does what and when? And, what is it for mission and evangelism – the reaching out to an imperfect world with the love of God, reaching out in sharing the joy and justice of the good news? What is it for us to be an interpreting community in this time of massive change?
There are many questions! Jesus constantly calls us into an upside-down way, that doesn’t necessarily make sense, yet seems to be at the heart of what it means to be the community of God. Into chaos, Jesus proclaimed love, grace, peace, hope, and faith in God’s vision for a fulfilled world. And into the potentially perfect storm that we face as the church in 21st Century New Zealand Jesus still calls us to the ways of love, grace, peace, hope, and faith in God’s vision for a fulfilled world. We must hold to those things that are good and re-imagine and re-interpret an expression of salt and light that makes sense for the challenges we face so that we cannot simply survive, but thrive as the community of God’s people here and now.
 N.T. Wright, Simply Jesus, HarperOne, 2011.