You’ve Heard It Said

The Sermon on the Mount ~

The life that Jesus calls his followers to live would be quite conspicuous in our world. In the famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus painted a picture of devotion and dependence on God that stood in stark contrast to life as usual. From the very first words—a poetic section referred to over the years by scholars as the Beatitudes, echoing the first word of each line in the original Greek language, translated blessed—that contrast is apparent. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Really? That’s not what you’d expect. Blessed are those who mourn. Are you kidding? Blessed are the meek. What culture are you living in? Whether you’re in the survival-of-the-fittest world of ancient Rome or the dog-eat-dog culture of our experience, these teachings of Jesus are entirely other. Jesus presented a new Kingdom’s economy. This is how it is in the Kingdom of Heaven. And Jesus declared: this new Kingdom is at hand.

The beginning of the Sermon on the Mount sets the stage for all the other teachings of Jesus. He’s going to proclaim many a paradox along the way—the last will be first; the least will be greatest; to possess nothing is to have all; to bear a cross is to wear a crown, and so on. He’s not exactly promising a rose garden.

The first but of this chapter sets that high calling in focus. You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? We think of salt today primarily in its usefulness in adding flavor to food, while at the same time contributing to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and the risk of stroke. Pass the … pepper, please. If you live in snow country, you know salt for its usefulness as a caustic agent, breaking down ice in the winter. What lovely parallels those two pictures provide the church in discerning her mission—we’re to add flavor to a blah world and, where necessary, to eat through the veil of ice around people’s hearts. Yes! We had better not lose our saltiness, church.

There’s a problem, however, with that picture. In Jesus’ day, salt wasn’t used in those ways. Salt was primarily used as a preservative. They didn’t have refrigerators back then. The manner in which Jesus’ hearers would have heard this metaphor is very different from the way we hear it today. They were familiar with the value of salt deposits gathered alongside the Dead Sea. They were familiar with the care given to those salt deposits in their handling and storage to assure their quality. They were also familiar with salt’s utter uselessness as a preservative after it broke down over time—its final disposition was to be used as road-fill. Paints a different picture of lives following after Jesus, doesn’t it? There is a greater point and a greater purpose to a life following after him. It really is a life called, and lived, beyond.

And visibly so. In much the same manner, Jesus called his followers the light of the world. Light, he argued, isn’t hidden, but rather it is placed in such a way as to illuminate darkness. Jesus said, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” The lives of those who believe in him should cause others to look to God. It is a sad realization just how often the exact opposite is the case.