“You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:13, 14)
I find Jesus’ juxtaposition of salt and light in this passage absolutely fascinating. I started reflecting on these two images of salt and light in my master’s thesis. I’ve picked them up a couple of times in my doctoral work as well. And I find myself still digging into them to mine the depth of meaning and understanding that is within them. After listening to my denomination’s recent discussion about whether or not to adopt a request that would require the denomination to develop a detailed plan for implementing the Great Commission, I have found myself coming back to these two metaphors again.
[What follows is a brief adaptation of some of my musings from more formal academic settings.]
Light and salt provide two vivid pictures of the Church’s mission. We are as light resisting an encroaching darkness and as salt preserving what can be saved in our decay-dominated environment. But before we embrace these images, it’s good to briefly consider some of the ways they are different than each other.
Salt is best utilized when dispersed. Piled up, salt becomes corrosive, eating through all sorts of metals and damaging other substances. Too much salt on food ruins what it is trying to preserve—even steak and mashed potatoes can become unpalatable. Yet when deliberately and more evenly dispersed, salt can melt a wide area of ice, providing a safe path along an otherwise dangerous steps, sidewalk, or road. Scattered well, salt will bring out a food’s natural flavors, somehow increasing our enjoyment of the food we eat. In some forms, salt can even help cleanse infected wounds.
Light, on the other hand, weakens the further it travels from its source. When dispersed, light becomes dim, ineffective, and of little benefit. Yet when gathered, light fills dark places. Magnified, light beckons ships into safe harbors. When angled and directed well, light can bring out unnoticed colours and hidden contours. In the hand of a trained physician, light can even restore sight.
One is powerful when dispersed, the other when gathered together. Yet, Jesus uses both as examples of how God’s recreated people are to engage the world.
God’s people are like salt dispersed throughout the communities and structures of the world. In this way, they are constantly unveiling God through their personal relationships and in the manner in which they utilize their resources to shape the broader public life of their neighborhoods, cities, countries, and indeed the whole world. God’s people are also like light gathered together in the unity of the Spirit, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. When gathered in this visible unity, the Church remembers and believes—and reveals to others—that God is at work here and now making all things new.
Yet this fluidity between being salt and light does not seem to be as natural for us as it was for Jesus and his first followers. Our tendency is to position these light and salt expressions in an either-or relationship. We turn outreach against worship, caring for our youth against ministering to the marginalized, evangelism against service, and in many smaller ways hold these two expressions apart from each other. We are invited to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” But having tasted and seen God’s goodness ourselves, we far too often sit around debating whether it’s more important for the world to taste or to see the Lord’s goodness. Instead of seeing God for who he revealed himself to be in Jesus Christ, the world receives two divergent and often adversarial expressions of God’s people: one fixated on being light; the other consumed with being salt.
Yet, if we take Jesus’ words seriously, there is more hope than despair. There is room for both: we are to be salt and light. The opportunity then is not to debate, which is more important, but to find ways to celebrate and encourage God’s people to be both light and salt. Instead of slipping into our centuries’ old pattern of debating whether words or deeds are more important, whether Sunday gatherings or identifying with the marginalized, or other divisive distinctions, what might it look for to communally and personally seek opportunities where we can be salt and light so that the world can both “taste and see that the Lord is good and his steadfast love endures forever”?