Scripture: Matthew 5:13-20
I can tell you in very specific detail what I will be doing in 166 days from now. That afternoon, I will be going to Camp Lakewood to pick up my son from camp. I know that I will be making that trip by myself, and I know this because July 24th, 166 days from today, is when the Opening Ceremonies of the Summer Olympics will be on, and I know Abigail will not miss that if she can help it. Like a lot of people, she is a big fan of the Olympics. It is neat how the best athletes from every country come together to compete. These athletes spend four years training and honing their bodies to the highest level. They strive for absolute perfection, and the difference between being on the podium and not achieving that feat is often separated by less than a second or fractions of a point. Olympic level athletes are not the kind of competitors who are satisfied with a participation trophy, for them it is all or nothing. We often feed into that and see the gold medal as the definition of greatness. We define greatness as being flawless perfection, as being undefeatable, and as being a winner above all else. This means that greatness is only for the few, the elite, the best of the best. The Olympics with all of its elite level athletes promotes this idea, as does a lot of marketing around it. In 2012 Nike pushed against that. During the summer Olympics that year, they ran a very different advertisement. Instead of showing chiseled athletes wearing Nike shoes, they featured a teenager from Ohio, in what I think is one of the best commercials ever. Have a look:
We naturally consider greatness as perfection that can only be achieved by a select few, but I love how this commercial redefines greatness. Greatness is not about meeting a standard that other people put on us as the standard we have to meet, but rather greatness is about what is within us. The commercial communicates that the results of greatness might look different for each person, because greatness is not just about the results. Greatness is about the inner fire, commitment, and drive to keep pushing oneself. Now in the end I realize that this was a commercial made to sell athletic shoes to people who may not be all that athletic, but I think this hits on a deeper point. Greatness is not a specific result, it is a process made up of consistent forward progress and countless tiny victories. This is very similar to what Jesus has to say about righteousness, how we live in right relationship with God. This morning’s scripture comes right after the Beatitudes that we looked at last week, and it continues the same theme. Righteousness is not about meeting a set of standards that others impose on us, it is about a changed heart. Like greatness we all have the potential to be righteous. The question is, is it in you?
If we jump to the end of this morning’s scripture we are left with a bit of a head scratching statement. It seems as if Jesus is setting a very high bar for righteousness. The Old Testament law found in the first five books of the bible contains 613 commands, and Jesus said not a single one of them will disappear. That is a lot of rules to follow and keep straight. He also said in verse 20, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
On the surface level this is very disheartening. From the standpoint of the Pharisees, their definition of righteousness, was to be in right relationship with God by following God’s rules. The Pharisees prided themselves on knowing the law. The dedicated their entire life to following and upholding the laws of the Torah. They had all 613 memorized and they strived to follow them to the letter. They were very good at following the law, and they were even better at pointing out when other people were not following the law, or at least their interpretation of the law. You see the Pharisees had all kind of rules they made up surrounding God’s rules. They had interpretations, exceptions, and exceptions to the exceptions. The Pharisees knew it all and looked down on judgement to those who did not meet their standards. Jesus plainly stated that only those who can exceed those standards of following the law can enter the kingdom of heaven.
It seems harsh, but Jesus is right. If they way that we are going to seek righteousness, to be in right relationship with God through following rules, then have to be flawless. We have to be absolutely perfect without any slip ups. It is a high standard, an almost impossibly high standard. Just like only the most elite and best trained in the world have any chance to achieve the Olympic gold, only a small handful of disciplined, literally holier than thou people would have any chance to achieve the kingdom through that kind of righteousness. Thankfully, Jesus offers another way.
In this morning’s scripture Jesus states, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Jesus lived in such a way that he upheld all 613 laws of the Old Testament, without fault. He lived in a way that surpassed the righteousness of the Pharisees. He fulfilled the law not only by living perfectly but by embodying the law. God gave the ancient Israelites the law so that in following it they would live in right relationship with God. Jesus fulfills the law because by following him we can be in right relationship with God. Through the cross, Jesus bridged the gap of sin that separates us from our Creator. When we accept Jesus as our savior, then we enter into relationship with him, and as such enter into relationship with God. Righteousness is not achieving a standard of acting holier than everyone else, it is being in right relationship with God and Jesus makes that possible. Our righteousness does not come from our own actions, it comes from the Savior of the world changing our hearts, it comes from within.
It was to illustrate this that Jesus began with two analogies to describe a changed life. This morning’s scripture is part of the Sermon on the Mount, and it really is a direct continuation of the beatitudes. In the beatitudes Jesus laid out what it means to be blessed, to have God’s favor. Jesus stressed that blessed does not look like being the best of the best, but it looks like seeking God and allowing ones heart to be changed by God. Jesus continues that theme by talking about salt and light.
Jesus says you are the salt of the earth, but then talks about salt losing its flavor. That seems odd to us, but that is because we have easy access to salt. This was not fully true in first century Galilee, most of their salt came from the Dead Sea. It was impure salt, and it was possible if exposed to moisture for the salt to wash away only leaving behind sand and grit. Those who seek to follow Jesus are the salt of the earth, as long as they seek to follow Jesus. Following Jesus and salvation is not meant to be a one and done thing. We do not simply say a prayer, consider ourselves covered, and then do whatever we wish. Doing that is like being salt that loses its flavor. It might still look like salt, but it no longer adds anything. Flavorless salt still has the right look, but it has no flavor. In the same way, a faith of going through the motions without a real relationship with Christ, might look holy but it has no righteousness.
We use a lot of salt today, and while we might use more than they did in the first century, salt was still important. It was the primary seasoning and preservative for food. To put it simply, salt added flavor. Being the salt of the earth means that in every encounter, in every conversation our presence should be what adds a “God flavor” to life. The presence, peace, and love of God should be present and felt by everyone that we interact with. Our righteousness is not seen by how we uphold a list of rules, rather like a good flavor it is experienced in how others feel God’s love through us.
Jesus also follows up by stating that those who follow him are the light of the world. Lights are meant to cast out the darkness, which is why it makes zero sense to put it under a bowl. A city on the hill cannot be hidden, because the light from it in the dark of night can be seen for miles. If we are truly living for a life that is in right relationship with God, if we are truly adding God flavor to the lives of those around us, then that is not something that is going to be hidden. We will shine out.
A lamp is not the light though, a lamp is just a vessel that hold the light. As followers of Christ the light does not come from ourselves, it comes from God. Just like being the salt of the earth adds a God flavor, being the light of the world means that we should live in such a way that we light up the world. We should live in such a way that our lives have a joy found in Christ, a peace found in Christ, and a love found in Christ that so that we shine. Shane Claiborne is a Christian advocate and community leader and he once wrote about an encounter he had. He was living in a fairly run down part of Philadelphia where he sought to change the community form the inside out. Shortly after moving into this neighborhood he and a friend needed to go to the grocery store and walking there took them under a bridge where many of the cities more undesirable residences gathered. They specifically noticed a woman who looked to be specifically down on her luck. On their way back, she was still there, and they invited her to come eat with them. At their house, after the meal, the woman asked “You are Christians aren’t you?” When they replied they were, she said could tell, because they were shining. This woman was able to tell just by their demeanor, by the way the acted, and by the love they showed, that there was something different about them. She was able to see their righteousness because their actions and compassion came out of a heart changed by Christ. Fortunately, the story does not end there. A couple of years later, Shane Claiborne was talking about his ministry at a Christian conference, and a woman came up to him. Shane did not recognize her at first, but it was the same woman from under the bridge. She told him, “I know you do not recognize me now, because I am different. Now, I am shining too.” Shane concludes this story by affirming that she indeed was. Being a Christian means that our lives should shine so that not just our good works, but our everyday walking around lives give glory to our Father in Heaven.
The Pharisees tried to achieve righteousness by being the elite, by being the best of the best. They saw right relationship with God as something reserved for the chosen few, for the special, while the rest of us could only be looked down as not worthy to reach that goal. But you can forget that. Jesus came so that all of us could not righteousness. Jesus came so that we could be in right relationship with God. Our ability to be add positive flavor to the world by salting the earth in God’s love does not come from our own power. It comes from the power of Christ in us. Our ability to be a light that shines out into a dark and unjust world is not generated from our own holiness. It comes from the holiness of Christ in us. So friends, is it in you? May we be vessels of the light of Christ, and may we let that light shine, let it shine, let it shine.