All in Good Taste
5th Sunday of Ordinary Time: February 6, 2011
© copyright 2011 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
This passage from Matthew follows verses we refer to as the beatitudes – the words Jesus spoke to his disciples beginning with “Blessed are…” at the beginning of what we call the Sermon on the Mount. Today it’s especially important to remember that after all the statements that begin, “blessed are the” comes this “blessed are you.” Verse 13 picks up with an answer to the implied question, “What about us?”
Remember, Matthew was writing a gospel for what most Bible scholars agree was a community made up almost entirely of Jewish Christian believers. Moreover, Matthew’s gospel was written down after the fall of Jerusalem and the complete destruction of the temple. What was going on in Israel in general is reflected in microcosm – between the lines – in Matthew’s gospel. The question being asked at this time had to do with the future of Judaism when there was no longer a temple as the focus of Israel’s worship. Today we know that the future of the Jewish faith after the Temple was gone became rabbinic Judaism, celebrated exclusively in synagogues. But no one knew that then.
For several years a struggle had been under way for the future of the religion of Israel around the time of the writing of the gospels. Christians thought that they held the keys to the future of that historic faith, but the party of the Pharisees was strong, and they disagreed, and, ultimately, they won out. So by the time Matthew wrote down the stories of Jesus in his gospel, he was making a collection of them for a community of Jewish Christians who were very likely discouraged that in the contest between the struggling house churches that followed in the way of Jesus, and the well-heeled synagogues that didn’t, the synagogues were winning. The majority of Jews were staying with the synagogues, not joining those who had become followers of the crucified Jesus.
A question asked in every generation, and surely then, must have been, “If we’re not really winning, why are we trying?” How many people do we know who define the future and the success of the church by the number of people who are joining, by the ways programs are growing, by the “bigger is better” philosophy? That’s not what was happening in Matthew’s community.
As a parable(1) for what was going on then in Matthew’s struggling community, just imagine a tiny church across the street from a large, well-heeled and prosperous mega-church. The tiny church is struggling, dwindling, its main ministry being a thankless, run-down soup-kitchen style outreach to the homeless, for which they receive little fanfare and even fewer donations. Their youth group is non-existent, they have no groups for the younger up-and-coming consumer-oriented Christians, they are mostly older folks who try to follow the teachings of Jesus while being a church together. Across the street, the prosperous mega-church stands in all its pillared glory, beautiful building, lots of their people parking all over the lawn and parking lot of the tiny church since no one much uses their parking lot anyway, in order to walk over to this growing mega-church. One of the main budget problems under study currently at the mega-church is which security company to hire to protect their buildings.
At the mega-church, the congregation rocks to the beat of a praise band, and the sort of gospel preached is one which declares “We don’t need to have pastors from fancy schools, we just preach the Bible.” They have a school, a bus ministry to fetch people, and by all the physical measures anyone can think of, they are growing by leaps and bounds, in part because they affirm a gospel of success by just pointing to how successful they already are. The tiny, struggling church continues to preach a less appealing gospel of service, self-giving and self-sacrifice.
The surprise in this parable is that Jesus walks into town one day, walks down the street, and turns in to enter... the tiny struggling church! It’s as hard to imagine as a gospel about Jesus addressed to a tiny and powerless group of his followers and calling them a royal priesthood! They looked like nothing of the sort. But that is the sort of gospel that Matthew passed along.
In the Christmas stories from Matthew, Joseph was called a righteous man. That is a very complimentary title, one reserved for only two individuals in all of Matthew’s gospel. He wanted to do the righteous thing by Mary when he discovered she was pregnant, which was to put her away quietly according to the laws of Moses. But the angel revealed to him a new righteousness couched in an obedience to the word of God that surpasses social conventions and morality, a sort of kingdom of heaven righteousness rather than a kingdom of Israel righteousness. Matthew tried to help a struggling church see that righteousness – discipleship – is not necessarily to be identified with numerical or financial success stories.
Think for a moment about the logical absurdity of Jesus’ opening statements in this second section of the Sermon on the Mount. “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything.” Any chemist will tell us that salt cannot lose it taste, does not degenerate, it’s just sodium chloride, that’s what it is, it can’t stop being that. So it seems that Jesus is saying, if you are a disciple of mine, you are the salt of the earth, that’s what you are, you can’t stop being a disciple, try to forget about it on Tuesday, pick it up again on Thursday. This passage doesn’t mean to tell us to get out and get salty; we are disciples, we already have everything we need to be to be effective witnesses. Our little struggle is not ours alone.
Or take Jesus’ comment about the light under a bushel. No one turns on a lamp in their living room, and then puts a big old garbage can over it. If you do, what’s the purpose of having a lamp lit? The purpose of a lamp is its light, apart from that it has no particular purpose. A disciple is like that, a light on the path for others, that’s what we are. Disciples can’t stop doing that any more than a lamp can stop being a source of light and still be true to its very essence.
It’s so graceless to be forever pounding people over the head, saying, “If only you would do this or achieve that you could be the salt of the earth, you could be the light of the world.” Jesus wants us to know that we are his already. Nothing needs to be added to make us more “disciplish” than we already are. It reminds me that in the beatitudes Jesus says, “Blessed are you...” not “you could be blessed, or might be blessed,” but “you are blessed.” A blessing to others is just what a disciple is.
The church has inherited an ancient call of Israel from the prophet Isaiah, who said that our light could rise in the darkness, that we could be a light to the nations, the small group that can save the rest. To say, “You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world,” far from being words of praise to the pietistic, is to say if we are Christian disciples, this is what we are: salt, light. These are not words to accessorize our faith, they characterize faith itself.
When the Christian community does have enough witness to be seen, it counts, and though we may rarely, if ever, see it ourselves, it counts eternally. That is not always obvious to us, it may never be. Especially during those times when it appears as though our witness doesn’t count for anything; when no one responds, no one seems to believe, we find ourselves in our struggling little marginalized church, metaphorically across the street from a mega-institution that’s booming, how can it be that God is blessing our little bit of faithful witness? I know of one tiny church. They have every strike against them: located in what used to be a great part of town, they now find themselves in a decaying old section of town, with buildings that cost a fortune to heat and cool, and no new families in sight, they are getting smaller, smaller, smaller, and in the end, barring some future known only to God, that church might one day have to close. But that doesn’t mean their current faithfulness counts for nothing. It counts, and it counts eternally.
Recently research(2) has been undertaken, seeking to discover why generous people – people who seem to have a built-in capacity to give of themselves selflessly – why they are able to be that way. One study discovered that the inclination to live a life that could be described as generous has nothing to do with parents or upbringing or the level of schooling or even moral education. We all think that if we were just better parents, perhaps our children would learn to be generous people, but that is not what was learned in this study. The one common factor found running through the lives of all people who could be described as generous turns out to be this: each had some experience in life in which another person acted generously toward them in a life-transforming way, and they have internalized that experience, made it into one of the narratives by which they live their lives. They keep looking for ways to make that experience the characteristic story of their lives.
The story of one man in that study went this way: As a child he was terrified of the dentist. The slow-moving, old-fashioned drill, and the pain he associated with it, were too much for him. Each time he went to the dentist he was terrified. Then on one visit, a kindly dental assistant befriended him, and when he became visibly agitated at the approach of the dentist and his whining drill, she said to him, “Don’t worry, I won’t leave you.” And she didn’t. A simple thing, nothing really dramatic. She probably forgot it by the next day.
But the man never forgot that simple, generous act from his childhood. It became part of the story that shaped his life. Years later, working as an Emergency Medical Technician he happened upon a terrible truck accident. The highway as well as the truck and its trapped driver were covered with gasoline. Naturally, the driver was terrified, because until the fire department arrived, there was every chance that the whole scene could go up in flames at any moment. The sensible thing to do was to stand a hundred yards off and wait and hope. Even so, this man went to the driver, sat beside him until help arrived, saying, “Don’t worry, I won’t leave you.” The story of generosity in his own childhood had become his life. Later the truck driver said, “That guy was crazy!” Maybe so. Or maybe he was the salt of the earth, the light of the world, who knows?
You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Let your light shine. For many of you, I know, you couldn’t put that light out if you tried. So don’t try.
1 from a seminar with Dr. Tom Long at Princeton Theological Seminary.
© copyright 2011, Robert J. Elder