Famous phrases are dangerous precisely because they are so familiar. After we have heard something a thousand times we are tempted to think we know what it means. As a father, I’ve come to understand that just because my children can repeat my words back to me doesn't mean they've understood what I meant. That’s the way it is with the words of Jesus: the famous ones contain more than we have imagined:
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 by men. You are the light of the world. A city 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 men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5: 13 - 16)
Students of Jesus--his disciples--are salt and light. Like everything Jesus taught, we would do well to reflect on these words again and again. Here are a couple of suggestions:
Salt is local, light is far-reaching:
We think of salt as a seasoning, but it was first used as a preservative. Salt only preserves at the point of contact. Without touching others, we cannot be the salt of the earth. Light, on the other hand, helps from a distance: other people can find their way when light illuminates their path.
Jesus explained that we could sustain our neighbors and give them hope: that co-worker going through a divorce is preserved by your kindness. You can bring peace when your family is in turmoil. When you stay in contact with someone subject to depression and separation, you restore them to community. The worth of salt comes through personal contact. It slows down the corruption that is naturally in the world.
Light, on the other hand, helps from a distance. It helps others see clearly. Notice that Jesus called himself the light of the world just after his words helped people see their own hypocrisy (John 8: 1- 12). When Jesus shared a meal with Zacchaeus, he did not tell his host what had to be done: because of the light Zacchaeus saw what needed to be done. The light came to his house, and he took action. (Luke 19: 1 - 10)
Salt and light are for the benefit of others:
From Abraham’s time to our very day, we should receive the blessings of God in order to bless others. In the first century salt and light came at a cost, and so were used intentionally. Since we are salt and light, we must have value and should intentionally “apply ourselves” to the world around us. Back to Jesus’ images: salt came at a cost. It was sometimes used as a form of payment (we get the word salary from the Latin word for salt). The Lord applies salt where grace and preservation are needed. Likewise lamplight was generated by oil, which was also of great value. That’s why the one who lights the lamp places where it produces the greatest effect (see verse 15): “it gives light to everyone in the house.”
In our day, salt is cheap and commonplace: one preference among many seasonings. We give almost no thought to light because each electricity and light bulbs are commonplace. In his day, Jesus used the vivid examples of salt and light because they were valuable substances in everyday life. The lesson? Jesus sees his disciples as highly valued, and wants to use us to bless others--the entire world, in fact! The salt and light belong to him, will we let him use us as he desires?
The ultimate benefit is the Father’s glory:
Jesus’ final words here are not mere poetry. He wants to teach us how to shine in such a manner that God’s purposes are fulfilled. “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (v16) This is practical instruction with a calculated purpose: have we considered how others can recognize our work as the work of God? If our work simply wins praise for ourselves we should rethink the mission. This is no small task. Jesus commissions us to live, speak, and act in such a manner that our actions result in praise to the Father. The “natural” response of our obedience should be that God gets the credit. It’s one thing to win personal approval, it’s another to win approval for someone else. Here’s a worthwhile meditation: how can my actions win praise for the Father?
We do not need world-wide prominence or influence in order to fulfill the words of the Master. Salt and light are needed in every home: how many homes do our lives touch?