The Salt and Light Brigade

Matthew 5:13-16

March 17, 1996 | Ray Pritchard

All of us were shocked and saddened by the tragic events in the Scottish highlands this week. On Wednesday a deranged gunman slaughtered sixteen schoolchildren and their teacher for no apparent reason. Commenting on the tragedy, the Chicago Sun-Times wrote an editorial entitled “We Must Not Allow Despair to Win Out.” Ponder these words: “It is a hollow and empty feeling when we come face to face with our society’s weaknesses and realize that no one and no place is immune to such violence.”

The words are truer than we would like to realize. This week a gunman entered a store on Chicago Avenue not far from Austin Boulevard and began shooting. Two people have already died. Next door a man heard the shots and ran to help. He was a Christian man who moved to that area because he wanted to be salt and light in his own community.

Less than 48 hours ago I heard someone discuss this terrible crime. They wondered out loud if people would start moving out of Oak Park. Good question, to which the only possible answer is, Where are you going to go? “No place is immune to such violence.”

“If You Can’t Convert Me”

The year was 1970, the tail end of the wild period of modern American history. Dr. E. Stanley Jones, the famous Methodist missionary/author/evangelist, was asked to name the number one problem of the church. He replied quickly that the number one problem was irrelevance. He went on to say that 3/4ths of the opposition to the church stems from disappointment. We promise to make men different, but the promise goes largely unfulfilled.

Often, opposition to the church stems from disappointment with the church.

Dr. Jones went on to tell the story of a multimillionaire who said, “If brother Stanley cannot convert me, I will sue him.” He said it half in jest and half in truth. Dr. Jones said that this is in truth what the world is saying to us, “If you Christians cannot convert us, we will sue you for breach of promise. You promised this, now fulfill it. Show us that you can and will convert us. There is no hope from any other direction.”

Twenty-five years have passed and I am sure that what Dr. Jones said is more true today than it was when he first said it. The number one problem of the church is irrelevance. Take a look around Oak Park this morning. Add up the attendance of all 55 churches in the village. Roughly 80% of the village won’t be in any church today. On a very good day—like Christmas or Easter—all the churches together will reach perhaps 25% of the village. On a normal day—like today—it will be closer to 20%.

Put simply, the church has lost its influence in the community. There are many reasons why this is so, but one reason stands out above the rest. The church has lost its influence because Christians have neglected their responsibility to be salt and light in the world. As we have neglected to be what God has called us to be, the world has decided to ignore us. And the flip side of that is also true. When Christians decide to be salt and light, the world pays close attention to what we say and do. Let me say it simply: When we are salt and light, the world listens to us. When we aren’t, they don’t.

The Salt Of The Earth

This is the Word of the Lord from the Gospel of Matthew. “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.” (Matthew 5:13) These words are so famous that they have become a proverb in the English language. If someone is genuine, useful, honest, straightforward, and without hypocrisy, we say he is a “salt of the earth” type person.

What did Jesus mean? Salt was one of the most common substances in the ancient world. Roman soldiers were paid in salt and would revolt if they didn’t get their ration. Indeed, our English word “salary” comes from the Latin salarium which literally means “salt-money.” And our expression, “That man is not worth his salt,” is a reminder of the high value that salt had in biblical times.

Let’s go a step further. Salt has five primary uses. First, it is a seasoning. This is a good time of year to be reminded of that. Just pick up any modern cookbook and count how many recipes include salt. Almost everything you will eat on Thanksgiving Day will have some salt in it. Even the cakes and pies will use a pinch of salt. Second, it is a preservative. This is no doubt its main use. Salt retards spoilage. It doesn’t prevent the process of decay, but it slows it down and prevents its spread. Meat left to itself will spoil. Cure the meat with salt and it will last a long, long time. Third, salt stings. We speak of pouring salt on an open wound. “We are called to be not the honey of the world but the salt of the earth. Salt stings on an open wound, but it also saves one from gangrene.” (Donald Bloesch in “Theological Notebook, Volume 1). Fourth, salt gives strength. You can’t live with sodium in your diet. Without it, your body quickly weakens. That’s one reason the Romans gave their soldiers salt. They knew that putting salt on their vegetables would give them needed strength. (The word “salad” is related to the Latin word for salt.) Fifth, salt creates thirst. That’s why they put it on potato chips and pretzels. It creates thirst and causes you to crave something to drink.

Out Of The Salt Shaker And Into The Soup

In what sense does this apply to the followers of Jesus Christ? We are to be the salt that flavors a tasteless world and we are to be the salt that preserves a decaying world.

Jesus had no illusions about this world. He knew its true character. It is like a piece of rotten meat, putrefying more and more each day. On every hand we have the most advanced technology. Every day brings new breakthroughs in medicine, science, communications, and mass-production. And yet at the same time, the moral climate grows darker and darker.

Ladies and gentlemen, let there be no mistake. We are living in a morally decadent society. It is like a piece of meat left all day in the sunshine. The decay is slow at first, and then suddenly the whole thing is rotten.

A Little Salt Is All You Need

What does it take to arrest the spread of evil? Salt. That’s what Jesus was talking about.

Salt stops the spread of moral evil and preserves society from total corruption.

Here’s the exciting part. It’s doesn’t take much salt to do the job. Just a little bit in the right place will do the trick. Do you remember the story of Abraham praying for God to spare Sodom because his nephew Lot lived there? He said, “Lord, if I can find fifty righteous people, will you spare the city?” And the Lord said yes. So Abraham said, “Well, Lord, if I can find forty-five righteous people in the city, will you spare it?” The Lord said yes again. So, he tried forty, and the Lord said yes. Then he tried thirty, and the Lord said yes again. The problem was, Abraham didn’t think there were thirty righteous people in the whole city. So he tried again, “How about for twenty?” And God said, “I will spare it for twenty.” Then Abraham took a deep breath and said, “Lord, what if I can only find ten?” “I will spare it for the sake of ten righteous people.”

Think of it. A whole city saved because only ten people were righteous. Remember, Sodom was a thoroughly wicked place. It was evil through and through. Yet God would have spared it for ten righteous people. As it turned out, Abraham couldn’t even find ten people who were righteous.

So God prepared to destroy the city. But before He could do anything, Lot and his wife and his two daughters had to leave. Even God wouldn’t destroy the city while the righteous were still there.

I repeat. It doesn’t take much salt to do the job. Robert Bellah is a sociologist at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University. These are his words:

“We should not underestimate the significance of the small group of people who have a vision of a just and gentle world… . The governing values of a whole culture may be changed when 2% of its people have a new vision.”

Think of it. All you need is 2% and you can change an entire culture.

Here is a simple definition: Being the salt of the earth means acting as a purifying agent to hinder the spread of evil. We who follow Jesus Christ are to be a “moral disinfectant” stopping the spread of evil. We are to be the conscience of the community, speaking out for what it true and right.

The Light Of The World

But that is not the whole story. Listen to the next three verses from Matthew 5: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)

What do these words mean? The dictionary defines light as “a source of illumination.” That provides the key to our definition.

To be the light of the world means illuminating the darkness so that others may see reality.

One of the most frightening things in the world is to be alone in the darkness. You lie in bed trying to go to sleep when suddenly you hear a creak, a little odd sound in the darkness. You strain to see through the darkness but all you can see are vague shapes. Darkness distorts reality. Everything looks different. It is only when you turn on the light that you see things as they really are.

This Little Light Of Mine

Notice the simple application in verse 16. “Let your light shine before men.” The key is in the little phrase “before men.” You can turn on a light in an empty room. It will dispel the darkness and no one will see it. Likewise you can live the Christian life in secret, but no one is going to be helped. If your light is going to shine, it’s going to shine before men. Somebody has to see it before it will do any good.

Jesus said two things would happen when you shine your light:

1. Men will see your good deeds.

The word for “good” is kalos. It means attractive or beautiful or lovely. It is that which is pleasing to the eye. Jesus is saying that people will be attracted by the beauty of your life. Others will be drawn to you by the way you live. When you say a good word for Jesus, that is a good deed. When you stop and smile at a friend, that also is a good deed. When you bake a chocolate pie and give it to a neighbor, or when you stop by the hospital to see how a friend is getting along, or when you stop to help your supervisor get her car started, that too is a good deed. It is beautiful, attractive, lovely. It is evangelism backed up by a winsome personality.

Men will see the quality of your life. And if the light is shining brightly they are drawn to you and to your Lord.

This is the most important thing. Jesus said, “When they see your lovely ways.” He could have said, “When they hear your great preachers, or when they sit in your lovely sanctuaries, or when they hear your wonderful choirs, or when they read your Statements of Faith. He could have said that. But he didn’t. He simply said, “When they see the way you live.”

I’ve got a friend who has been burdened for one of his neighbors, an elderly lady from the Ukraine who lives several doors down the street. But how could he build a bridge of friendship to someone from a completely different culture? The key turned out to be a thatching machine. One day as he was de-thatching his lawn, he happened to strike up a conversation with his neighbor. That same day he walked over and offered to de-thatch her lawn for her for free. Naturally, she was thrilled and amazed that anyone would do something like that. It took him several hours to finish the job, but the payoff has been an open door for his entire family to befriend a lonely woman. His girls have become good friends with the woman and she loves to bring over Ukrainian specialties for the family to try.

That’s the whole story, so far. But the story isn’t over yet. The door is wide open for a conversation about Jesus Christ. Who knows where it will lead?

I’d Rather See a Sermon

Perhaps you’ve heard this poem. It’s called “The Living Sermon.” (By Edgar Guest, Masterpieces of Religious Verse, p.361) It drives the point home with crystal-clarity.

I’d rather see a sermon

than hear one any day.

I’d rather one would walk with me

than merely tell the way.

The eye’s a better pupil

and more willing than the ear.

Fine counsel is confusing

but example’s always clear.

The best of all the preachers

are the men who live their creeds.

For to see good put in action

is what everybody needs.

I soon can learn to do it,

if you’ll let me see it done.

I can watch your hands in action,

your tongue too fast may run.

The lectures you deliver

may be very wise and true.

But I’d rather get my lessons

by observing what you do.

For I might misunderstand you

And the high advice you give.

But there’s no misunderstanding

how you act and how you live.

There’s a second thing that happens when you shine your light before men:

2. They give God the credit.

Verse 16 says, “They praise your Father who is in heaven.” Did you notice that the word “your” is used three times in this verse? Your light … Your good deeds … Your Father in heaven. When you let your light shine before men, they glorify your Father in heaven.

What begins on earth ends in heaven.

That’s how much influence we have. We can point men to God. We can lead them out of darkness into the light.

It is wonderfully simple. We do the shining and God gets the credit. And here’s why. Light does not call attention to itself. It provides illumination so that other things can be seen as they really are. When men see a beautifully lit city, they don’t discuss the lights; they talk of the genius of the architect. When men gather around a Thanksgiving table, they don’t praise the light by which they eat; instead, they give the credit to the one who prepared the meal.

So it is that when our light shines to those around us, they see the beauty of our good works, the darkness falls away, they see spiritual reality, and God gets the credit.

Saints Let the Light In

I cannot imagine anything higher or greater. We have in our hands enormous influence for good. We are the light of the world. We can make an eternal difference to the people around us. We can quite literally change the world. As they see the beauty of our lives, they will be attracted to the Jesus we preach. As they see the light in us, they will see the One who gives us the light. They will be attracted our Savior and God will get the credit.

Let me tell you the most exciting fact about all this. You don’t need a seminary degree or a Christian college education. If you are a Christian, you are already salt and light right where you live. You don’t need a Bachelor of Salt or a Doctor of Light degree. You have everything you need right now.

You don’t need a seminary degree, you have everything you need right now.

You’re salt. So get out of the shaker and into the soup!

You’re light. So crawl out from under that bushel basket and let it shine!

A little boy was sitting in church with his mom one day. As he looked up at the beautiful stained glass windows, he saw faces in the glass. “Mom, who are those people in the window?” he asked. “Those are the saints,” she answered. The little boy thought for awhile and then said, “Oh, I know who the saints are. They’re the ones that let the light in.”

I spoke earlier of the moral decay going on all around us. Let no one despair. The darker the night, the brighter the light shines. It is precisely when the world is at its worst that the people of God should be at their best. We were made for days like these. And this is our calling: We have been commissioned by Jesus Christ to go throughout Oak Park and River Forest and Forest Park and Cicero and Berwyn and Elmhurst and Chicago letting the light in.”

Wanted: The Salt And Light Brigade

I began by saying that the church has lost its influence in our society. That seems so obvious that it needs no further comment. But why has it happened and what can we do about it? It has happened as we have neglected to be salt and light in the world. This world has desperately needed light, but we have hidden under the bowl. In the meantime the world has gone from bad to worse.

What will have to happen for us to once again become salt and light in the world?

1. To become salt we must actively decide to become purifying agents who hinder the spread of evil.

2. To become light we must actively decide to illuminate the spiritual darkness around us by the boldness of our speech and by the beauty of our life.

Let no one be deceived. It will not be easy. The world doesn’t want salt and light, but it desperately needs it. The world won’t give you a Medal of Honor for joining the Salt and Light Brigade, but you ought to join up anyway.

Two Simple Commitments

Here are two simple commitments we can make this morning:

First of all is the Salt Commitment: I will be a purifying agent to hinder the spread of evil as God gives me the opportunity. That may mean speaking up at the office. It may mean refusing to get involved in certain holiday traditions. It may mean rocking the boat where you work. It may mean taking some criticism for your faith. It may mean taking an unpopular stand on public issues. Remember, salt stings and then it cleanses.

Second, there is the Light Commitment: I will illuminate the spiritual darkness around me by the boldness of my speech and the beauty of my life. That certainly involves deeds of everyday kindness. It may mean going out of your way to help a friend. It no doubt means openly identifying yourself as a Christian. It will probably cost you some money and some time. Remember, the primary function of light is to reveal things as they really are. When you’ve done your job, they won’t talk about you. They’ll talk about Jesus.

We aren’t called to save the world. But we are called to make a difference. We can’t do everything. But we can do something. And what we can do, we ought to do. That’s what being salt and light is all about.

Lord Jesus, grant that we would not be even slightly disappointed this morning. You have made us for times like these. Give us a new vision of the difference we can make in our world. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?