Matthew 5:12-20

The Text

Rejoice! and rejoice exceedingly, that your wages are many in heaven, for in the same way they pursued the prophets before you.You are the salt of the Land, but if salt becomes tasteless, what will season it? It has power for nothing except being thrown out to be trampled by people. You are the light of the universe. A city built on a hill is not able to be obscured. And neither after lighting a lamp does one put it under the bushel basket but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In this manner shine your light in the sight of people, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in the heavens. Do not think that I have come to undo the Law or the prophets; I have come not to undo but to make them full. For truly I tell you, until the heavens and earth pass away, not one letter, not one accent mark will pass from the Law until all comes to be. Therefore, whoever undoes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, if your justice [with regard to the Law] does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

A Reading

I’m sure a great deal can be said about the significance of the metaphors in this passage, what it means to be ‘salt’ and ‘light’ based on their connotations, but that’s far from my object. Rather, I take it as important first to remember in the continuity of the narrative whom Jesus is addressing here and, importantly, whom he is not addressing. The ‘you’ in this passage is a specific small handful of his committed followers, of whom we only know four. As far as whom Jesus is not addressing, contemporary Christian readers will likely notice it isn’t the so-called religious elite, the Pharisees and Sadducees, but this observation is virtually an anachronism in the story, given that they have had only an incidental appearance in the Baptizer subplot and have had zero interaction with Jesus so far. The point we should observe instead is that Jesus is not addressing the wider crowd, only speaking within their earshot. ‘Salt of the Land*‘ and ‘light of the world’ are meant to be images for this little ragtag group of four or so fishermen. And that absurdity should hit us more than it would if Jesus were addressing here an anonymous mass abstractly, as an open-ended gathering of future Christians who would bring a ‘light’ to the world. That is, what Jesus is not doing is creating an ideal (let alone religious) community; rather, the candidate Messiah is forming his government in exile—his shadow cabinet—by charging them with a tremendous function within their wider community. ‘You four,’ in other words, ‘will be the redemptive element for all of Israel.’

That Jesus’ relationship to the disciples here is decidedly political (hence I call them his ‘government in exile’) is suggested by his identifying them with Israel’s prophets. The prophets are political figures at least insofar as they are historically at loggerheads with the state, something of which we’re reminded in 4:12 with John’s imprisonment. In v. 12 Jesus tied the four’s fate with that of the prophets, but along with v. 17’s repetition of the prophets it forms a frame around vv. 13-16 that invites us to read the text with the idea of Israel’s prophets in mind. If it’s a tenuous suggestion, it at least makes sense of Jesus’ otherwise unprovoked declaration that he doesn’t seek to undo the Law and the prophets. After all, why would people think that an Israelite, who has so far taught nothing contrary to either Torah or the prophets—and indeed is proclaiming the widely anticipated Kingdom—would want something so unthinkable as dissolving the Law and prophets ofIsrael?* That is, unless what Jesus had just said about his four followers made it necessary to inject a prompt corrective to any potential misunderstanding. If Jesus appears to commission them in the function of prophets, he must be clear that they will neither rival nor replace the tradition of prophets; rather they will pick up that very tradition. If Jesus is going to make this point, in the delicate balance between his movement’s newness and its oldness, he must explicitly affirm the old. Yet even more than this, Jesus claims, like ‘Matthew’ has claimed of much of Jesus’ life so far, that he will bring the whole tradition to a state of fullness.

Finally, then, whatever meanings can be extrapolated from ‘salt’ and ‘light,’ the conceptual function of these images conceived in the above context should not be lost. Having suggested that the Messiah is addressing specifically his core followers and casting them in a political register among the prophets, we should consider what being salt and light would mean just for such a group. In other words, what would it mean to be appointed to a function once filled by the prophets?

(a) Firstly, it looks like being salt just to this extent: whatever powers salt imparts (e.g., flavor, preservation) to other things, nothing imparts those powers to salt in order for salt to do so. Nothing salts salt; salt simply must be salt for everything that isn’t. If the disciples will take up prophetic mantles for Israel, they’re ‘it’; the buck stops with them. Insofar as they are elements for Israel’s restoration, there is no element to restore them should they fail. There are no prophets for prophets, no priests for priests; theirs is not to be ministered to but to minister to.

(b) Secondly, they are a light—yet not one that should not be hidden but one which cannot be hidden, literally in Greek, “is not able to be . . . ” The shadow government of Jesus will necessarily be visible, though it is not clear that it is due to the brightness or quality of their light. Rather the image of the city on a hill suggests that it is because of their position of visibility. And this opens up to a dangerous possibility, that the corruption of city is unable to be hidden, that the dimness of its light is unable to be missed. There is also a tension present in these images to note that will exist elsewhere in ‘Matthew.’ In v. 14 the word is no longer earth/Land but kosmos, suggesting a conscious decision to evoke a grand scale, yet the word ‘house’ (oikia) in v. 15 is one that for ‘Matthew’ will again and again appear in association with the ‘household of Israel.’ Thus the extent of shadow cabinet’s role or influence is almost ambiguous, just as ‘Matthew’ ends up being a shade ambiguous, as to how much they have just Israel in view and how much they have the gentile nations in view toward truly cosmic messianic kingdom. Thus, the candidate Messiah’s cabinet stands here somewhat on the boarder of the kingdom of Israel and the rest of the world.

In the meantime the emphasis on Israel’s national law is evident. Not only is the smallest detail of the Law—an accent or, technically, a ‘diacritical mark’—to outlast both heaven and earth, but subjects of the Messiah’s kingdom must stand in greater justice to it than even its experts and its most punctilious adherents. Those who do not measure against it greater than the scribes and Pharisees will, apparently be excluded from it. Thus there can be no mistaking Jesus’ commitment to the traditions (and thus authority) claimed equally by his most proximate rivals, with whom he will be distancing himself in very short order.

Bringing it Home

If I’m at pains to emphasize the particularity of Jesus’ four-or-so-person audience in Matthew 5, it’s in order to preserve the particularity of those called to service in the messianic kingdom. Jesus’ words are spoken in open air, and they do not discriminate who can be convicted and compelled by them, yet they are spoken formatively to a particular group with a unifying vocation, a group who is being taught at this time and place precisely in order to groom and train them for the tremendous task here described as prefigured in the prophets. In the text, it’s Simon, Andrew, James and John, though possibly some others; today, it is us, readers and hearers within the Church—not an anonymous, ideal mass, such that anyone who follows the ideals of these chapters will be salt of the Land and light to the cosmos. Rather, it remains far more concrete because our mission is far more concrete: to be a kind of social body, a kind of body politic. When Coach Taylor says that ‘clear eyes, full hearts can’t lose,’ he doesn’t mean that anyone who has clear eyes and a full heart can’t lose but rather that the team that they are cannot lose so long as they have clear eyes and full hearts. The mission of agents of the Messiah’s kingdom is to be together the only salting agents available to the land in which we dwell together, to be good light rather than bad light as the visible city that we are. This is precisely what it means to be the people Jesus has called, because this is precisely the function that Jesus has called us to be.

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