You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:13-16 NIV
Jesus is teaching his disciples on a hillside and crowds are listening in. He begins with a series of paradigm shifting comments about how the spiritually poor and heartbroken, among others, are the truly blessed ones in God's kingdom economy. Then, before moving on to a series of subversive and scandalous thoughts on what it looks like to actually live this way in the world, he sets it up by calling us salt and light. This isn't new to most of you. You've probably heard plenty about being salt and light. But here's a quick reminder, because it's important and also because we live in a social media world designed to make bland, dim antagonists of us all.
SALT flavors and makes us thirsty. When used appropriately, it accentuates the natural flavor of another thing. No one eats their favorite savory food and ever says, Mmm, awesome salt flavor! If it does its job, the salt is forgotten. It's forgotten but its effects are felt. A well-seasoned meal always results in thirst. You can't have good food without good drink. Salty peanuts at the bar aren't a reminder that bartenders are nice; they're a reminder that bartenders are smart. Salty food leads to thirst. But all of this is null and void if the salt loses its saltiness. Without its saltiness, salt can no longer accentuate the natural flavor of things and it can no longer cause thirst.
As Jesus people, we lose our saltiness when we insulate ourselves from culture rather than immersing in it. And here's the thing - immersion and criticism are not the same. I would suggest that criticism prior to immersion is almost always harmful. Immersion requires listening and learning. It means trying to see things the way they see things, whoever they may be. Criticism can be a part of this process and almost certainly will be but the process matters first. Here's a simple way to think about it: Critical dialogue is helpful. Critical monologue is harmful. And the snarky remarks we make on Facebook and Twitter about this and that? It's almost always monologue. Comment sections are helpful but there's a drastic difference between digital and human interaction.
I love this prayer from Henri Nouwen: God, help me to see others not as my enemies or as ungodly but rather as thirsty people. And give me the courage and compassion to offer your Living Water, which alone quenches deep thirst.
And what about LIGHT? Light illuminates and marks a destination. Jesus is emphasizing the same point with both metaphors. Light, much like salt, exists not for itself but for others. Light is only effective in that it illuminates something else. Jesus further clarifies by using another metaphor to explain the first. He says, A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.
Today we can illuminate just about any environment we're in with the touch of a button or the flick of a switch so we've lost our sense of deep appreciation for the gift that light is. But if you've ever spent any time in a part of the world where electricity is scarce, you know how difficult it can be to function once the sun goes down. This was Jesus' world in first century Palestine. If you were stalled on your journey somewhere and the sun went down before you arrived, your only hope was the flickering light of a home or town in the distance. The light would become your guide, a reference point to keep in front of you as you stumbled through the darkness, moving in whatever direction you needed to keep the light in front of you, watching as it became larger and larger, until you finally arrived at safety.
That's what Jesus calls us. Light. A reference point in the darkness that invites all people to safe places. The theologian Michael Wilkins says it this way: We not only carry the light of the gospel of the kingdom of God, but we are that light. Because of the work of the Spirit in our lives, our transformation has produced kingdom light in us, affecting every aspect of our being.
And so, before we get defensive or critical or whatever, before we shake our head incredulously at just how quickly society is seemingly devolving into a pagan mess, before we jump all over that idiot on Facebook who posted that thing about that thing we find just so insanely stupid, let's first ask ourselves this question that the late theologian John Stott once asked:
We should not ask, “What is wrong with the world?” for that diagnosis has already been given. Rather we should ask, “What has happened to salt and light?"