Wait: Take time to sit in silence together, allowing space for God’s voice to be heard.
Read: Matthew 5:13-16
“You are the salt of the land; but if salt has become foolish, how can its saltiness be restored?” (Mt 5:13)
We pick up the reading again this week with Jesus giving the famous Sermon on the Mount before a crowd of Galilean peasants. We might also remember that Galilean peasants were generally a marginalised people, looked down upon by their Jerusalem neighbours as, among other things, “people of the land.” Obery Hendricks explains,
“There was one further factor that contributed to the marginalization of Galileans: as a regional group they were derogated, if not despised, as am ha aretz. Initially this Hebrew designation, which literally translates as “people of the land,” meant simply a peasant or rural dweller as distinct from Israel ruling elites, as in Jeremiah 1:18. It evolved into a term of reference to the entire nation of Israel, as reflected in 2 Kings 15:5 and Ezekiel 46:3. The term took on derogatory overtones in the post-exilic period, describing those who had not been taken into exile and were derided by the returned exiles as not having remained fully observant of the rites of Israel in their absence (e.g., Ezra 6:21 and Neh. 10:31).”1
We hear an echo of this term in the phrase, “salt of the earth”—where land is perhaps a better way of translating the Greek word gē.
Many have pondered what the significance of salt is in this illustration. Is it an agent of flavouring, or purifying, or preservation? Perhaps all three. I suggest that its significance is in the fact that it is an agent full stop. An oppressed people on the underside were no doubt all too familiar with powerlessness in the face of imperial policy and action; with feeling as though there was nothing they could do to bring change in their situation. Here, though, Jesus brings a word that will challenge them: You are not powerless! You have the power to be agents of change in your world! Throughout his ministry, Jesus’ teaching and actions roll back the cloak which hides the reality of this truth, and lulls those on the underside into accepting that they cannot change the way things are. In becoming aware that they are actors, agents of change, they might “emerge from their submersion and acquire the ability to intervene in reality as it is unveiled.”2 However, if they reject this reality, Jesus warns, they will remain in their powerlessness, unaware and unable to engage with the powers that shape their world. In this way, they would remain in their foolishness.3.
“You are the light of the world” (Mt 5:14) evokes Isaiah 42, where the vocation of the Servant figure is to “bring forth justice to the nations” (Isa 42:1), treating with particular care those most vulnerable (Isa 42:3). The prophet goes on to speak of to the Servant:
“I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.” (Isa 42:6b-7)
Whereas in the Ancient Near East, such a role was thought to be the vocation of kings, here Jesus gives it to his marginal community of disciples on the hills of Galilee. They not only exist for themselves—they are to be a light to the other subjugated peoples of the empire.
- What everyday situations do you see in your neighbourhood which are accepted as the way things are, but perhaps are not the way things should be?
- What might it mean for your community to be “the salt of the land”?
- Read Isaiah 42:1-7. Ask God to help you imagine how you might engage in the vocation of being “the light of the world” this week.
Pray for one another
Close with the Lord’s Prayer
1. Obery M. Hendricks Jr., The Universe Bends Toward Justice: Radical Reflections on the Bible, the Church, and the Body Politic (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2011), 69.
2. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1977, reprint, New York: Continuum, 2005), 109. Emphasis in original.
3. “Become foolish” is a better translation of mōranthē (from where we get the word “moron”) than “has lost its taste.”
Wait: Take time to sit in silence together, aware of God’s presence in a broken world.
Read: Matthew 5:17-20
Today’s reading can sound a bit foreign to those who are used to understanding Jesus as preaching “salvation by grace” as opposed to the Pharisees who taught “salvation by works”. Such a distinction, however, owes more to the reformation than to the Gospels. We must remember that Matthew’s community were thoroughly Jewish, and held high regard for the Torah. In this reading, though, we get a hint of the dispute between Matthew’s community and a Pharisaic group around how to live faithfully to God. Far from seeing himself as a Christian denouncing Judaism, the author of Matthew’s Gospel was “a Jewish teacher in conflict with other Jewish teachers in the broadly diverse Jewish community of the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the 1st century.”4. Understanding Matthew’s Gospel as an “intra-religious” dispute rather than an “inter-religious dispute” might help us to better hear what Matthew is saying, and to avoid ways of understanding that demonise other groups. After all, history bears witness to the terrible legacy of reading religious texts which delegitimate other groups.
Matthew’s critique of the Pharisees—who were vying for greater influence of the Jewish community in Matthew’s time—is that their notion of what it is to be a just community is about appearing to be just— it does not go deep enough. Rather, true just living—the kind of living amongst communities that express God’s reign—must go to the heart.
- Take a moment to let God’s Spirit examine your heart. Are there ways in which your expression of just living is more about appearance than of the attitude of your heart?
- Are there ways in which God’s Spirit is prompting you to take action?
Close with the Lord’s Prayer
4. Anthony J. Saldarini, “Reading Matthew Without Anti-Semitism,” in The Gospel of Matthew in Current Study, edited by David E. Aune (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 167.
Wait: Take time to sit in the silence of repentance together, aware of our inadequacy and God’s grace.
Read: Matthew 5:21-26
Today’s reading begins a series of sayings in the Sermon on the Mount which each begin with “You have heard… But I say to you…” These sayings are about just and reconciling relations in Matthew’s community—a community struggling against political, social and economic pressures. Rather than abolish the Torah they take it deeper, to the heart.
Matthew 5:21-26 is a call to live not only with nonviolent actions, but with a nonviolent spirit. Physical violence against another, of course, is wrong. But the emphasis here is that even anger, when left festering against another, leads to dark and dangerous place. The “transformative initiative” that Jesus teaches here assumes the context of a worshipping community, as would have been the norm for village life in Galilee, and perhaps even more so for Matthew’s urban community. It also echoes the voices of the prophets who called the people to just living before right worship (Isa 1:10-17; Isa 58; Amos 5:21-24). Note that reconciliation here is the burden of the one whom a brother or sister has something against—the one in, or accused of being in, the wrong. Later the burden will be on the other side (Mt 18:15).
Verse 25 counsels the people to “come to terms quickly with your accuser” in order to stay out of the court system. In a subjugated community ruled by imperial powers, being at the mercy of the courts would have been a vulnerable place to be. Once matters went there, they would be out of control of the village community and judgment would no doubt be harsh and retributive, not restorative. While such a practice might be difficult to translate into a modern Western democracy, we should remember that those on the underside of such societies experience the justice system don’t experience the justice system in the same way as those who are part of the dominant culture.
Myers writes of his U.S. context:
“We should not dismiss this principled stance by the early church as irrelevant to our modern society’s ‘rational’ justice system. Racial-ethnic minorities in the United States today are similarly skeptical about the prospects of being treated even-handedly in criminal proceedings—which is entirely justified, given both the historical record and the persistent and endemic racism in prosecuting and sentencing. The first Christians also had such suspicions, and it was in their interest to pursue alternatives to the rabbinic and imperial courts that routinely marginalized or criminalized them.”
- Who do you think living out this practice of reconciliation might look like in your community?
- Take a moment to let God’s Spirit examine your heart. Are there ways that you need to put this reconciling practice into action today? If appropriate, share with the group and pray for one another.
Close with the Lord’s Prayer
Wait: Take time to sit in the silence of gratitude together, giving thanks for the ways you’ve experienced God’s loving kindness.
This week’s Common Value: Redistribution
Read: Deut 15:12-18
- How might we help foster just economic and political relations in our neighbourhood and world this week?
Close with the Lord’s Prayer