Text Study for Matthew 5:13-20 (Part One)

February 5, 2023/5 Epiphany C

My favorite part of our baptismal liturgy is lighting the baptismal candle. “Let your light so shine before others,” I say as I light the taper from the Christ Candle, “that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” I often remind the parents and sponsors, or the baptismal candidate, that these words come direct from Jesus, via Matthew 5:16.

I might even mention that Holy Baptismal is a gift, but it is also more. It is, in our tradition, a vocation for the baptized person. It is a calling ritual as well as an entrance ritual. It is the one ordination in our tradition that matters. All other vocations, whether to public leadership in the church or to public service in the world, are rooted in this baptismal calling.

So, I was brought up a bit short when I took the time to read and translate Matthew 5:16. All of the second person pronouns in this paragraph are plural. The “you” in Matthew 5:16 is not singular. It is not focused on the “light” of the individual disciple. Rather, these words are directed to the disciple community as a whole and together.

I have been thinking about what that means for my beloved baptismal piety and practice. I’m thinking I have to reformulate my theology a bit in this regard. I’m relieved that the baptismal welcome in our liturgy saves the day at least a bit. “We welcome you into the body of Christ and into the mission we share,” the congregation responds, “join us in giving thanks and praise to God and bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Pew Edition, page 231).

That welcome acknowledges that the call and the mission “belong” first to the community. Our individual vocations, then, derive from that communal call. I will highlight that aspect of the baptismal vocation more in the future.

I was primed for this realization by re-reading Stanley Hauerwas’ theological commentary on the gospel of Matthew. “The sermon is not a heroic ethic. It is the constitution of a people,” Hauerwas writes, “You cannot live by the demands of the sermon on your own, but that is the point. The demands of the sermon are designed to make us depend on God and one another” (page 61, Kindle Edition).

Hauerwas argues that the Sermon on the Mount is not a prescription for entry into the Kingdom of the Heavens. Instead, it is a description of the way of life embraced by people gathered by and around Jesus. That way of life, Hauerwas asserts, is highly visible in and for the world. Therefore we get this metaphor of light in this week’s gospel reading.

In this regard, Hauerwas continues his dialogue with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, especially in Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. “Christians,” Hauerwas observes with Bonhoeffer, “are tempted to become invisible, justifying their identification with the surrounding culture in the name of serving the neighbor” (page 62, Kindle edition).

While Matthew’s community was called to be different from the surrounding culture, Christians since Constantine have been tempted to identify fully with the surrounding culture. Thus, Christians in the West have tended to fade into the background of the culture. It’s very difficult to see something unless it stands in contrast to the background against which you see it.

In our gospel reading, as Hauerwas and Bonhoeffer note, we have images that set the Christian community apart from the world. The community is called to be highly visible – like a city set on top of a hill, or a lamp set on a lampstand. Hauerwas quotes Bonhoeffer at this point: “To flee into invisibility is to deny the call. Any community of Jesus which wants to be invisible is no longer a community that follows him” (page 63, Kindle Edition).

This communal visibility, in contrast to the surrounding culture, is not an end itself. Hauerwas notes that this visibility is an effect of following Jesus. We are not called to be different for the sake of being different. But we can’t help but be visible by contrast if we are living as Jesus followers.

Hauerwas connects this to what it means for our justice to exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. “The Pharisees quite understandably tried to observe the law without that observance being recognized as subversive to those who ruled them,” Hauerwas argues, “Yet that is exactly what Jesus will not let those who would be faithful to God’s calling of Israel, those who would be his disciples, do or be” (page 67, Kindle Edition).

Warren Carter takes us in a similar direction in his commentary. “Disciples, like prophets, know a liminal role,” Carter writes, “They live in but at odds with their dominant culture. Yet they cannot retreat from it because they have a God-given mission to it and in it” (page 137, Kindle Edition). As Hauerwas and Bonhoeffer note, a retreat into invisibility is a failure of the disciple community.

The images of light and salt in our text “emphasize the missional identity and lifestyle of disciples. While participation in God’s empire is blessed, it mandates an alternative way of life that challenges the status quo. This is a costly demand for a minority and marginal community,” Carter writes, “vulnerable to being overpowered by, or accommodating itself to, the dominant culture” (page 139, Kindle Edition).

When the Church retreats into invisibility while still claiming the benefits of the Kin(g)dom, the result is salvation understood as “cheap grace.” This is the phrase for which Bonhoeffer is perhaps best known. Hauerwas quotes Bonhoeffer’s definition of “cheap grace” – “It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. Those who affirm it have already had their sins forgiven” (page 60, Kindle Edition).

Hauerwas argues that this “cheap grace” understanding results from separating the person and work of Christ. This is a particular failing of Lutheran orthodoxy. It is also a failing of any theology that depends fully on the theory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement as the explanation for the reality of the cross. But I can only address my own theological tribe at this point.

My tradition tends to focus exclusively on grace as forgiveness of sins. That results in an emphasis on freedom from sin as the definition of salvation.  But that is only half the story. Hauerwas argues that “incarnation properly understood means that Jesus’s person and work cannot be separated because Jesus saves by making us participants in a new way of life. The name of that way of life is church” (page 30, Kindle Edition). Christian freedom is always also freedom for serving the neighbor in love.

I’m on this topic in part because of Bishop Eaton’s recent column in the January/February edition of The Living Lutheran. Her concern about “blurring the distinction” between Law and Gospel is, in my humble opinion, rooted in a separation of the person and work of Christ. If we focus on the gospel only as forgiveness of sins, then any celebration of good works is a dangerous flirtation with works righteousness, despite the fact that it is portrayed as the opposite.

The result, historically, has been Lutheran quietism when it comes to social justice issues. More than that, such theological analysis has made it possible for Lutherans to become “invisible” in the midst of one of the most horrific crimes in human historic – the Holocaust. As long as Lutherans had their theology straight, they could remain invisible. Of course, a number of them became highly visible in cooperating with the Nazi horror. But that’s for another time.

Any time we Lutherans begin once again to flirt with the safety of invisibility, we should feel a rising sense of theological panic – not because we might engage in works righteousness but because we are tempted by cheap grace.

This might all be written off as the ramblings of a wild and crazy theologian (Stanley Hauerwas, not me). Except for the fact that one of the most fruitful lines of Lutheran theological inquiry in the last fifty years seeks to bring the person and work of Christ back into our one Lord and Savior.

The work of Tuomo Mannermaa and his colleagues leads us back to a healthy emphasis from the authentic Luther – especially in his 1535 commentary on Galatians. The Finns urge us to reflect on what it means for Christ to be present in the believer (and in the believing community) in faith. That presence empowers and embodies works of love for neighbor. If those works are not present, then it seems that Christ is not present in the believer and the believing community. This is not blurring Law and Gospel. This is understanding that both move us toward the same objective — love for God AND love for neighbor.

It may be that some members of my theological tribe find this line of thinking uncomfortable. That’s the point. Jesus notes that our justice must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. That’s not a knock on actual scribes and Pharisees. Instead, that’s a sort of standard by which to measure ourselves.

It won’t do to remain invisible in our piety and our careful adherence to dogmatic limits. That, Bishop Eaton, is what it means to hide our light under a grain basket until it is extinguished. I’d rather we set the world afire and sort out our dogmatic blunders later, if necessary.

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