Bonhoeffer :: Chapter 7: The Visible Community

Matt 5:13-16 13"You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. 14You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. 16Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.

We set the scene last time for the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus is surrounded by the multitudes and so he takes his disciples up on a hillside. They have gathered around him, he looks each one in the eye and begins to tell them what exactly it means to be a disciple.

So far, after the beatitudes, we have the feeling that to be a disciple is an otherworldly thing: that the disciples will be too good for this earth. They are to be meek, to be poor in spirit, peacemakers who will be persecuted. But Jesus follows all that by saying “You are the salt of the earth”, “you are the light of the world.” The disciples, as it turns out, are not ethereal people who are entirely too good for the world, they are instead the community which it cannot do without.

Salt exercises two functions. In Jesus’ time there weren’t many ways that you could store food long term without it going bad. Salt, however, has a preserving function. Meat that had been saturated and packed in salt could be stored for a long time. Salt is also used for flavor: it enhances the taste of good food and helps to mask the taste of bad food. Salt preserves and flavors, and was considered to be so crucial in this time that Roman soldiers were frequently paid partly in salt!

This is what Christians are! Note that Jesus doesn’t say “you should act like the salt of the earth” or “I want you to be the salt of the earth”. He says “you are”. Bonhoeffer says that this is both a burden and a freedom. On the one hand we have here no standard to live up to, no law imposed. Jesus does not say “I want you to be salt and therefore you must do these three things” and so lay the burden of the law on us. We are salt, merely by the presence of transforming grace in our lives. At the same time this is a burden that we can not escape: we are salt whether or not we want it, and Jesus says that if we are not savory, we aren’t good for anything.

We also are the light of the world. This also, I think, can be taken in several senses. Light illuminates, it reveals, it enlightens. As Christians we have access to the Truth in a way that the world around us does not. We should see more clearly to the realities of things, because we have access to the Word incarnate, and we should illuminate them so that others can see as well. Christians deal with the spiritual reality of all of life’s situations in a way that is hidden to those around us.

Jesus also intends for us to be “a city, set upon a hill” that others can see, even from far off. Consider the function of the lighthouse or the proverbial light in the window. We should be a guide to those lost in the darkness. In this context Jesus says that our good works should be visible so that those who see them will glorify God.

So how can we apply all this? All right, you say, we are salt and light. What can this practically mean? How do we fulfill our function in the world? How are we so indispensable? Let me take one example from current affairs. Our country is preparing to go to war with Iraq. As a student of history, a political observer, I must say that this seems to be a justifiable war – the people of Iraq may well be placed in a better situation through our intervention than if we had not acted, Saddam is indeed a threat who deserves to be neutralized, all this I freely admit. We are not limited, however, to seeing through the eyes of political calculation or historical judgement. As a Christian I can see by the light of the revelation of the Word that God stands in judgment on all man’s acts of violence. I can reflect this uncomfortable light into my conversations with others about the war: that what we do will also involve the suffering of innocents and the taking of innocent human life and this is not God’s best for humanity.

I can exercise my preserving function by praying for God’s mercy upon my nation, even when though it is deserving of Judgement. One of my other favorite authors refers to the examples of Abraham bargaining for the lives of Nineveh and of Moses going among the people of Israel with censers when God was angry as ways in which the preserving function has been modeled for us. I can challenge and question others feelings of vengeance, anger and violence, and so help to stop the rot of sin.

Finally, by modeling the kingdom with love for my brothers and sisters I can reflect glory to God. Jesus said that men will know we are disciples because of our sacrificial love for our brothers and sisters in Christ. I may not have the answers for every question of international affairs, but I can demonstrate the possibility God calls us to, of living in peace with all men. A city on a hill, the salt of the earth, a lamp on a lamp stand: Jesus gives us no choice this morning, if we are to be his disciples we must let our light shine and our lives must be savory.