Dirty Hands & Radiant Spirits

Matthew 5:13-21

It was a long trip. He was tired. It began to rain. It was about two o’clock in the morning, when a man found himself driving through a small town. He slowed down to thirty miles an hour. Nobody was on the street but suddenly he heard the siren and saw the flashing lights. He pulled over and rolled down the window. The police officer said, “Mister, did you see that sign back there?” “What sign?” “School zone – 15 miles an hour.” “But officer, it’s 2 o’clock in the morning.” “Did the sign say, ‘School zone except at 2 o’clock in the morning’?” “But officer, it’s raining. My windshield wipers aren’t working very well.” “Did the sign say, ‘School zone except at 2:00 when your windshield wipers aren’t working’? The law is the law.”[i]

How often have you faced a similar situation? Caught between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law.  Well, that’s where we find ourselves today as we encounter Matthew’s Gospel. Pastor David Lose writes, “…we are again faced with the insidious temptation to hear Jesus’ words as requirement rather than blessing, as command rather than commissioning.”[ii]

Which brings us to the obvious question that we must bring to this text: Why? Why is it important to search for a blessing or to hear Christ’s words as a commission?  Wouldn’t it be easier to just adhere to the letter of the law? Like the officer said, “the law is the law,” right? Well, there’s a problem with that kind of black and white thinking, theologically speaking anyway.  There’s a problem because Jesus often lived in the gray. He says in this passage that he came “not to get rid of the law, but rather to fulfill it.”  But his “fulfillment” it turns out, was more of a “reinterpretation” of the law, or at the very least, a “reimagining” of it. And that’s important for us to acknowledge. Christ didn’t come to do away with the Mosaic law, but instead, he presented a new way of looking at the law.  Jesus viewed the law through the lens of grace rather than legalism.  The law was about blessing others rather than requiring them to “toe-the-line.”

And Matthew makes sure we understand this point. In his account, Matthew reminds us that Jesus often wandered into this “gray” area. The law said, “Don’t touch anyone with a skin disease.” Jesus touched a leper and said, “I choose to make you clean.” The rules said, “Don’t mingle with sinners.” Jesus ate with people of ill repute, saying, “God desires mercy, not sacrifice.” The traditions said, “Important people need important positions and important titles. Hang around people like that.” Jesus said, “Don’t get caught up in titles, pomp and circumstance; but rather be a servant of all.”

Christ was coming from a place of grace rather than legalism. You see, he knew the spiritual hunger and the physical suffering of the people he encountered and he knew that they, amid it all, were looking for an experience God.  They already knew the legalistic understanding of God all too well. But in him, in his earthly life, the Reign of God had become a reality.  A Reign that persists today and still exhibits the true nature of God; the very heart and soul of the Divine if you will.

So, Jesus sat these folks down and began to teach them about the grace of God. The Beatitudes, as we discovered last week, were a foreshadowing of what was to come.  They were very heart of his teaching.  The life-blood of what it would mean to follow him. And today, with the Beatitudes fresh off his lips, Jesus transitions to the soul of discipleship; the being and doing of joining him on this journey.

Now, Jesus presents the soul of his mission using some very colorful yet understandable imagery.  He tells the disciples they are salt and light. Notice, he doesn’t say they might become salt and light if they try real hard. This isn’t a prediction or a promise that may or may not come true at some future moment. Jesus flat out declares that the disciples–those still clueless, still confused, still wet-behind-the-ears fishermen are salt and light. That was their status. Period.

But why salt and light? Well, if you think about it, salt is a really amazing mineral. It enhances the flavor of our favorite foods, acts as a preservative, melts the ice on frozen steps and frozen roads, as a matter of fact, it was so value in the ancient world that it was sometimes used as currency. The word “salary” comes from the practice of paying a worker with salt. Salt is an amazing thing when it’s used; but when it isn’t used, when it’s just sitting in a bucket, it isn’t good for anything. Being the “salt of the earth” then, implies that we have some function to perform and some responsibility in this present Reign of God. Our saltiness is lived out when we practice things like loving-kindness and compassion. You see, it’s not about requirement or legalism, rather it’s about invitation and blessing.

I heard an amazing story this week, about a seven-year-old boy who befriended the new kid in the class. What’s so amazing about that, you might ask? Well, the new kid’s name was Ali.  Ali had just moved to Iowa with his mother and father from Somalia.  They arrived only two weeks before the immigration ban went into place. Anyway, Ali found himself in unfamiliar territory.  He spoke very little English, had darker skin than most of the other children, and he was the only Muslim in the class.  He didn’t however, find himself alone.  A young man named Langston immediately befriended him.  It almost brought tears to my eyes when my son Russ shared this story with me last week, because, you see, Langston is my grandson. (Grandpas get to brag sometimes) But the point here is that Lang knew nothing about their religious differences, or immigration bans, or administrative fear-mongering; he just saw an opportunity to befriend someone who was alone.

That’s salt.  But what about light? If salt is the doing then Light is the being. Jesus says we are to be a beacon on a hill, a light that’s not hidden but displayed for all to see. Now, I don’t know, I think being “light” might be a little trickier. Being light might be a little bit further outside our comfort zone. Because being light in this sense means setting an example for others to see. This is where commissioning comes into play.  As God’s light, we are called to invite others to experience Divine grace. As a people of faith, we are commissioned to speak the truth, even if the truth is unpopular.  As disciples of Christ, we are challenged to be light by standing against injustice and working toward a day when faith overcomes fear and peace replaces war. This is the core, the very heart and soul, of the change that Christ brought to the law. Understanding the law as gracious lead him to challenge the legalistic and uncaring religious system of his day and he invites us to continue in that same vein as we participate in acts of social justice in ours.

Theologian N. T. Wright has a valuable insight on this.  He posits that the real message behind Jesus’ sermon on the mount was to issue “a challenge to Israel to be Israel.”[iii] And today, I think Christ’s challenge to us, in our time, is for the church to be the church.  What does that look like? Salt and light. Doing the mission and ministry by loving, caring, reaching out, touching the untouchables and loving those who may feel unlovable.  And at the same time being church by living Christ’s example of justice in our everyday lives. And if we can live-into this invitation, this commissioning, if we can continue doing the work and being the heart of church, we, as a congregation, as a community, as a people of faith, will have answered God’s call to be salt and light.  May it be so. Amen.


[i] Rev. William Carter. Following the Kiss. (DayOne.org) 1999

[ii] David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, (textweek.com) 2014.

[iii] N. T. Wright.  Quote by Edwin Chr. Van Driel (Feasting on the Word, Year A. Vol. 1) 2012

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