Light and Salt

Next Sunday is the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time in Year A. You can read a complete commentary on the Sunday Gospel here.

11 Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. 14 You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. 16 Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father. (Mt 5:13-16)

Our very short gospel passage follows immediately after Matthew’s presentation of the Beatitudes (5:1-10) as part of the larger “Sermon on the Mount” as it is popularly known. It is a parallel text, in part, to Luke 6:20-49, the “Sermon on the Plain.” More importantly, this is passage is part of the first of the give great discourses in the gospel. At a broad stroke, Matthew 5-7 are an expose of Jesus’ authoritative teaching; Chapters 8-9 are pericopes of his authoritative deeds.

With the chapters dealing with authoritative teaching, there are four primary themes that emerge:

5:3-16        distinctiveness of Christian discipleship
5:17-48      disciples: fulfilling the Law
6:1-18        disciples: true and false piety
6:19-34      disciples: trust in God over material security

Much of Chapter 7 is given to providing contrasting examples of these, with the culmination in Matthew 7:28-29: “When Jesus finished these words, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

Although crowds are described at the beginning of Mt 5, the focus of this larger discourse is for the disciples who have already responded to Jesus (cf. 4:18-22) and now need to learn what life in the Kingdom means. To understand the “Sermon on the Mount” as simply a general code of ethics, is to miss that Jesus is beginning to explicate the demands of the Kingdom that point towards a way of being in the world: “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt 5:48) This is held in contradistinction from a simplistic following of the Law (5:21-48).

One of the points, lost in translation, is that the meaning of “Blessed are….” in the Beatitudes are a bit more subtle than would appear at first glance. The Greek word used in makarios.  This does not mean “blessed by God” (bārûk in Hebrews, translated into Greek as eulogētos). The word “happy” in today’s English carries too much connotation of emotional and psychological well-being – and that is off the mark. The word “fortunate” gets closer, while some scholars hold the most idiomatic English expression which captures the sense is the Australian “good on yer.”  Makarios is a description of the circumstances of a good life; a life well lived – even if it proves to come at a cost.


  • Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Gerhard Friedrich, electronic ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964) – G. Bertram, mōraínō, 4:832–47; H.W. Beyer, eulogéō, 2:754-65; and F. Hauck, makários, 4:367-70

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