The distinctive people of God in Matthew 5

This Sunday’s lectionary reading, the Third Sunday before Lent in Year A, is Matt 5.13–20, a short section of the so-called Sermon on the Mount following on from the Beatitudes. In some ways, this collection of sayings is well known, with some of it passing into common parlance (‘salt of the earth’)—and yet the important teaching of Jesus here appears to be neglected or ignored in much common debate about what it means to be the people of God. 

The reading actually includes two different subjects of teaching—the distinctiveness of the people of God, and the relation of Jesus’ teaching overall to the Old Testament—so it is worth taking these in turn, and I will do this in successive posts.

Salt in the ancient world was a vital commodity. As most modern readers will be aware, salt was used as a seasoning (just as it is now), as a preservative (as used to be the case before refrigeration) and as a fertiliser on soil. The idea of people or disciples being ‘salty’ has parallels in Greek literature and rhetoric, and just as Paul later invites the Colossians’ conversation to be ‘seasoned with salt’ (that is, appealing and winsome), so the Athenian academics were accused of having speech that was ‘saltless’, meaning unappealing and dry. 

The word for ‘earth’ here (ge from which we get ‘geology’) can signify the soil of the ground, the land (of Israel) and the whole world. In the immediate context of Jesus addressing those who are forming part of a renewal movement within the people of Israel, it would be natural to understand Jesus as saying that his disciples are going to bring life and renewal to the whole of the nation. But as we read it, after the time of the Great Commission in Matt 28 when we are to take Jesus’ teaching to ‘all nations’, we now naturally read this in more global, cosmic terms. 

The idea of salt ‘losing its saltiness’ seems rather odd to modern ears, since we are accustomed to using pure salt. Most salt in the ancient world—such as that quarried from the Dead Sea—was in fact a mixture of minerals, with salt being only one. Thus it would be possible for the salt to have been dissolved out, leaving only other mineral particles which offer none of benefits of salt. But, as someone has commented, Jesus is here wanting to give us a lesson on discipleship, not a lesson on chemistry! The absurdity of salt not being salty is only surpassed by the absurdity of a disciple of Jesus who no longer offers a distinctive, appealing and life-enhancing contribution to the world around him or her. 

The statement of judgement about ‘being trampled underfoot’ has occasionally been taken in a positive sense: at least there is some use for this unsalty ‘salt’ on a pathway. But there doesn’t appear to be anything positive here in Jesus’ saying. We should rather read it alongside his other judgement sayings about people being ‘thrown out’ (Matt 8.12, 13.42, 13.48, 22.13).

The idea of being ‘the light of the world’ runs in parallel with the ‘salt of the earth’. Just as the salt contrasts with the food to which it is added, bringing taste to that which is bland and preserving power to that which would otherwise rot, so the light is implicitly contrasted with the dark that surrounds it. There is a clear connection here with ideas in the Fourth Gospel, and Matthew provides another connection by emphasising Jesus’ language of God as Father. Whereas in the Fourth Gospel it is Jesus who is ‘the light of the world’ (John 1.9, 3.19, 8.12, 9.5, 12.46), in Matthew it is Jesus’ followers. Here we find a kind of Pauline idea of the disciples as the body of Christ,  in this case representing Jesus’ own light-giving presence in the world. (We find a similar idea in different forms in the welcoming of a disciple being the welcoming of Jesus in Matt 10.40, and loving care of ‘the least of these my brothers’ being loving care of Jesus in Matt 25.31f)

The city on a hill is mentioned between the reference to ‘the light of the world’ and ‘the lamp on a stand’, which makes it clear that Jesus is thinking not merely of a city or town on a hill that is visible during the day, but the light of the city, created by the combined effect of the individual lights in the windows of houses, during the night. 

The usual domestic light in Jesus’ day would be a lamp (luchnos) formed as a simple clay bowl with one end pinched to hold a wick, and filled with olive oil as fuel. (The garden plant lychnus, or rose campion, gets it Latin name because its fine stems could be used as wicks for just such a lamp, or in candles.) It is worth noting here that a single lamp ‘gives light to the whole house’, implying that the usual peasant home consisted of just one large room, in which the family would work, sleep, and (at night) bring in the animals, giving us important background to making sense of the details of the nativity in Luke 2.

It is striking here that Jesus is encouraging his followers to be visible in the light that they bring, and (in common with Matthew’s general emphasis on ‘righteousness’ as the actions that God requires) this light is expressed in good deeds. This verse is recited in the Book of Common Prayer before the collection, reminding the gather people of Jesus’ teaching that faith in him finds its expression in tangible acts of generosity and kindness. There might be some tension with Jesus’ teaching in Matt 6.1 about not performing our ‘acts of righteousness’ in public in order to gain respect and adulation—but the contrast is more apparent than real. Jesus is there rejecting ostentatious display; here he is calling his disciples to be visible.

From these two parallel but distinct metaphors about the life of discipleship, we might note four things. 

First, distinctiveness is a non-negotiable part of living the life of the kingdom as followers of Jesus. These sayings follow on from the ‘kingdom programme’ of the Beatitudes, which sets out what it means to live this life in contradiction to the expectations of ‘the world’. 

Because they have committed themselves to follow Jesus, and so adopt the new values of the kingdom of heaven, they are now going to stand out as different from other people’ (R T France Matthew NICNT p 171)

Secondly, this distinctiveness will not always be welcomed, and will be a challenging vocation to live out. We have just read in the immediately preceding verses: ‘Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me…’ and we have no reason to separate that from these verses. 

Thirdly, this distinctiveness is visible, not hidden. 

Here the context indicates that is it about the effect which the life of disciples must have on those around them. It thus takes for granted that the ‘job description’ of a disciple is not fulfilled by private personal holiness, but includes the witness of public exposure. (R T France Matthew NICNT p 176).

Fourthly, this distinctiveness is corporate, though in different ways in the two illustrations. Salt is only useful if it is distributed throughout that which it is to preserve or season; here we have an illustration of the dispersed people of God in society (hence Rebecca Manley Pippert’s book on evangelism from some years ago Out of the Saltshaker). On the other hand, the city on a hill offers its light because the individual lights are gathered together. It is the collective light of the whole community that draws the watching world. 

And what is the goal of all this? ‘That they may glorify your Father in heaven’ (Matt 5.16). ‘Father’ here is not a general term for the universal relationship of humanity with God, but signifies the distinctive relationship between God and those who have become subjects of his kingdom. The subject of this discourse, and the aim of the discipleship which it promotes, is not so much the betterment of life on earth, as the implementation of the reign of God. 

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4 thoughts on “The distinctive people of God in Matthew 5”

  1. Jesus’ illustration of a lamp is a much more homely picture than the city set on a hill, applicable not just to the church as a whole but to the Christian as an individual. If you claimed to be a city set on a hill you might be accused of having ideas above your station, but a lamp in a room is much more modest – and yet none the less effective. Now we are zooming in from the dark country road leading to the town or city, zooming in to just one light among the many, and through an open window into the room where that individual light is. Suddenly it’s not darkness with a point of light but everything is light, and the light is coming from that brightly burning lamp.
    That is the influence that a single Christian can have, in a home, in an office, in a class, in a factory, in a club.
    Jesus has a sense of humour. He says, ‘You don’t light a lamp and then put it under a bowl.’ Jesus’ little joke is double-edged. Not just the light but also the bowl are being put to the wrong use. There may be another twist. Putting the lamp under a bowl may mean not simply that the light cannot be seen but that it will go out altogether. Put a lamp under a bowl? No way! That makes no sense.
    Verse 16. ‘In the same way…’ To hide the light of your Christian testimony makes no sense. Let it shine. Jesus has two more things to say about this.
    1. The light is your good deeds, good actions: kindness, helpfulness, loyalty, sympathy, practical help.
    2. The point of letting your light shine is to bring praise to your Father in heaven. That means not just actions but words, the testimony of your lips as well as your life. If by the grace of God you live a good life, loving, patient, helpful, kind – and you never acknowledge God in your conversation, what will people say. They will say, ‘What a lovely person. I wish more people were like that.’ What’s missing? Praise for your heavenly Father.
    Let your light shine, and tell people where your light is from.

  2. An 80 year old widow, sister in the Lord, today had a lengthy pre- op assessment.
    By all accounts (and we know her well) she had amazed the Dr and other staff with her responses to her imminent (next week) second, in five years , critical operation on a rare cancer.
    Indeed she had a captive audience, who could not rebuke or ridicule her faith in Jesus: “Jesus is not a religion: he’s real” is a nutshell summary.
    Distinctive she is, as she loves Jesus, knows his presence , his peace. She sees it all, also, as part of her Christian ministry having been converted as an adult, with a life that would have crumpled and embittered many. She is an extraordinary, ordinary, Christian evangelist

  3. A good informative article, as ever. I would just add that the word “salary” comes from salt, as it was almost a form of currency in olden times.


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