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

The Matthean author presents a sustained description of the Jesus-following life. As we read through this account together, it will be important to recap and review the argument periodically.

Jesus is “God with us.” He is with us in order to save his people from their sins. That mission attracts attention from the Gentile world almost immediately. It also attracts the attention of the powers of this world. Jesus is worshipped as the King of the Jews. For that reason, he is a threat to and threatened by the powers of this world.

Jesus is son of Abraham, son of David, son of Joseph, and son of God. That identity is confirmed and amplified in his baptism. John the Baptizer points to Jesus as the “greater one.” Satan, the Adversary, works to derail Jesus’ mission and to sustain the powers of this world. Satan fails and Jesus moves from personal identity to public ministry.

“Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near,” Jesus proclaims. He calls disciples through whom he will carry out that mission. It’s a nondescript bunch and the beginning of a much larger nondescript bunch called “The Church.” Jesus teaches and heals and frees people throughout Galilee. His reputation extends well beyond the local gossip network. The movement is launched.

The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ movement manifesto, at least in the Matthean account. It is, as well, a summary manual of discipleship. We get a description of the Kingdom of God in the Beatitudes. The Sermon is given to the disciples, but the crowds listen in. Jesus announces the Great Reversal of the Kingdom. He describes what participation in that Reversal looks like for disciples. And he acknowledges how the powers of this world will react to and reject that Reversal.

It’s important to hang on to this narrative arc and momentum as we read this week’s Gospel text. It is critical to remember, first, that Jesus is “God with us.” Matthew 5:13-20 could sound like Jesus is ready to hand over the reigns to the disciples. But that’s not the case. After the Sermon is concluded, we get two more chapters of Jesus healing, demon-casting, teaching, and training the disciples.

It isn’t until the end of Matthew 9 that Jesus tells the disciples about the great harvest. That harvest is going wanting because of the lack of laborers. Jesus has filled out the cadre of disciples with several more workers, coming up with a total of twelve. Only then does Jesus send the disciples out into that harvest, beginning in chapter 10. Or does he?

Well, he doesn’t send them out immediately. Matthew 10 contains more disciple-training. In the Matthean account, he doesn’t actually send them out even at this point. Instead, as we read in Matthew 11:1 (NRSV), “Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.”

In fact, in a gospel account so fully focused on teaching and training disciples, we never read the story of Jesus actually sending the disciples out to do the work. We get that story in the Lukan account, but not here.

We don’t read about such a sending in the Matthean account prior to the Resurrection. It is only in Matthew 28:19-20 that Jesus commands the disciples (now eleven in number, of course) to actually “go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” And that sending is accompanied by the assurance with which the gospel account began – “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20b, NRSV).

Without that big narrative arc, this week’s text daunts me to the edge of despair. Salt of the earth? Light of the world? Doer and teacher of all these commandments? More righteous than even the scribes and the Pharisees? Lord Jesus, I’m pretty sure you got the wrong person for this job. How about if I just sweep up after the real disciples in the crowd?

Because we read the gospel accounts a piece at a time in our worship, it’s easy to lose track of the bigger story. That’s what makes such a recap necessary. Jesus is God with us, always and forever. Jesus goes ahead of us to confront the powers of this world and defeat them in his death and resurrection. Jesus has experience calling ordinary people to do extraordinary things. And Jesus calls us to do those extraordinary things in community, not by ourselves.

That community reality matters for our text this week. “You (pl.),” Jesus says with emphasis on the “you” in verse thirteen, “are the salt of the earth.” He repeats that emphasis in verse fourteen: “You (pl.) are the light of the world.” Jesus makes these declarations to the disciples as a community, not as individual actors.

The second-person plural continues in verse sixteen – your (pl.) light, your (pl.) good works, and your (pl.) Father in the heavens. And it’s “your (pl.)” righteousness that must be more than (or perhaps better than) that of the scribes and the Pharisees. As we read the examples of that greater righteousness in the rest of the Sermon, we continue to meet that communal dimension. Even the final paragraph about the two foundations is directed to “everyone who hears these words and acts on them” (Matthew 7:24).

Jesus is “God with us” now and forever. We’re not in this “salt and light and righteousness business” by ourselves. That’s all good. But it’s a pretty high bar, all the same. We could read this, as does Martin Luther, as an example of the “second use” of the Law. Since this is an impossible standard for sinners, the Sermon should drive us into the merciful arms of a gracious God who sends Jesus to be our righteousness. In that reading, Jesus demands of us things we cannot do, whether alone or together.

I don’t buy this perspective. It uses a first-century text to answer sixteenth-century problems. When we apply that solution to our twenty-first century context, we get even further off the track. I think A.J. Levine gets much closer to Jesus’ intentions in the sermon. “The Sermon on the Mount is not a counsel of despair,” she writes, “it is a hymn of praise not only to God but for all of creation.” In fact, Levine argues that Jesus thinks we are fabulous creatures.

“Thus the Sermon on the Mount resembles,” Levine continues, “in part, a theological pep talk. Good pep talks, or revivals, don’t just make us feel better about ourselves,” she argues. “They inspire us not just to feel better but to do better: try harder, dig more deeply, find the resources needed for living the life to which God is calling us.”

Could it be that our text for today is an appreciative invitation to be what we are in Christ? Our text is not an exhortation to become something. It is not a promise that under certain conditions we will achieve a certain status. “You (pl.) ARE the salt of the earth…You (pl.) ARE the light of the world…” It is possible to act like these descriptions are not true. But such counter-action won’t deny the reality. It will just make for useless disciples.

Once again, the way to hold all this together is to hold together the “work” and “person” of Christ. Jesus is indeed “God with us” to save us from our sins. We are freed from the powers of sin, death, and the devil through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That, however, is the beginning of our life with Christ, not the end.

We are also freed for a life together of love for the neighbor (and the enemy, as it turns out). “But for the gospels themselves, that rescue of individuals,” N. T. Wright notes, “is designed to serve a larger purpose: God’s purpose, the purpose of God’s kingdom. And in God’s kingdom,” Wright continues, “human beings are rescued, are delivered from their sin, in order to take their place (as Jesus already called the disciples to take theirs) not only as receivers of God’s forgiveness and new life, but also as agents of it” (After You Believe, page 112).

Salt and light actually do things in the world. Salt and light people, disciples, live as if the Kingdom has come near. As N. T. Wright puts it, “the life to which Jesus called his followers was the kingdom-life – the life which summoned people to be kingdom-agents through the kingdom-means” (After You Believe, page 124). The balance of the Sermon will give examples of these kingdom-means and what it looks like to bring them about.

These examples are, however, not merely a sort of discipleship checklist. Instead, they are signs that the kingdom has indeed come near. Being salt and light will certainly produce good outcomes for some of the least, the lost, the lonely. More than that, however, being salt and light are signs that the change has begun – both in the hearts of disciples and in the life of the world.

References and Resources

Carter, Warren. Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Bible and Liberation). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

Charles, Mark, and Rah, Soong-Chan. Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery. Intervarsity Press, 2019.

Hauerwas, Stanley. Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Levine, Amy-Jill. Sermon on the Mount: A Beginner’s Guide to the Kingdom of Heaven. Abingdon Press, 2020.

Smith, Robert H. Matthew (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament). Augsburg, 1989.

Wright, N. T. After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. HarperOne, 2010.

Wright, N.T. Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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