Continuing in this series of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, we move on to the next two parallel sections: C & C’
According to the literary structure of the Sermon, those sections correspond to 5:11-20 and 7:7-12, as seen below:
A. Jesus ascends mountain surrounded by crowds (4:23-5:2)
B. Blessings (5:3-10)
C. Fulfill “the law and prophets”/ glorify “your Father in Heaven” (5:11-20)
D. Two triads about Torah (5:21-48)
E. One triad about spiritual discipline (6:1-18)
D'. Two triads about Godly priorities (6:19-7:6)
C'. “This is the law and prophets”/”your Father in Heaven” provides (7:7-12)
B'. Warnings (7:13-27)
A'. Jesus descends mountain surrounded by crowds (7:28-8:1)
Section C (5:11-20) reads like this:
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet.You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
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. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.1
Remembering what was mentioned in the previous post, this section begins with another “beatitude,” but it was clearly designed to begin a new section because it rests outside of the inclusio of the first eight beatitudes ("because theirs is the kingdom of the heavens"), and also because it is addressed in the second person plural, whereas the previous eight beatitudes were addressed in the third person plural.
Here, beginning in verse 3, it is noteworthy that Jesus considers his first century Jewish audience on the Mount to be fortunate for being falsely accused of evil, and even being persecuted for such false attributions of “evil” on his account. Jesus could not have been more clear that the persecutions of which he spoke were not vague existential feelings about “suffering” as a human being, or even being persecuted for their own foolishness, but rather it was for their loyalty to Jesus.
Jesus was the controversial figure in the midst of Israel, and their loyalty to his message—which was only a message of peace and hope for those who believed him—was what provoked false accusations and persecutions.
When considering that historical context, one of the first questions which came to my mind was how their promised “fortunate” situation of being persecuted for loyalty to him related with the following statements about salt and light, or about “abolishing the Law or the Prophets”, or about giving glory to their Father in heaven.
For the next few posts, I’m going to illustrate how they are related.
Let’s begin with the first question: Why did Jesus teach about salt and light in connection with persecution?
At first glance the answer is not obvious. In fact, the more we look at the verses in context the more questions we could ask, like why compare people to salt? What is Jesus implying about their “saltiness”? And what does salt losing its taste have to do with false accusations and persecution for loyalty to Jesus? So what if salt gets thrown out and trampled under feet? The connections are not very obvious.
Almost every biblical commentator I have studied suggests that salt was used for: flavoring, preserving, and purifying (cleansing), so therefore that must be what Jesus meant. Jesus must, allegedly, have meant that his disciples are to be the means of preserving the earth, or of being a witness of what God finds “tasteful” and pleasing to him, or that they were to be a purifying agent within society.
All of these are somewhat interesting to me, but not terribly convincing. And that is because what Jesus actually said is not what our English Bible translations have offered. The more straight-forward “literal” translation would actually look like this:
You-all are the salt of the land, and if the salt is to become foolish, in what will it be made salty? For no one is it2 still potent, except for being-thrown outside and to be trampled under the people.
The most obvious difference in this (accurate, but wooden) translation above is the word foolish. That Greek word just so happens to always mean “foolish" in both canonical and non-canonical literature, which means that it is very strange to translate it as having “lost its taste,” as though it was somehow an idiom for losing taste (even though we have no examples of this idiom elsewhere in Greek literature). For a few examples within the canon, take a look at I Cor. 1:18-25, Romans 1:18-22. The Greek word clearly means “foolish.” Therefore I think it’s safe to say that without any evidence of this being a unique idiom, Jesus probably meant it in its most common usage: to become foolish. “Lost its taste” is likely not what Jesus meant.
He said that if the salt is to become foolish—i.e. if they, who are the salt of the land, are to become foolish—in what will they be made salty again?
Let’s now focus on what the implications are.
What does this mean: “If the salt is to become foolish…”
If Jesus meant that they might actually become foolish, i.e. disciples behaving like true fools in the sight of others, then Jesus could have been telling them that they would become practically worthless except for being used to create a path for others to walk on. After all, the Roman government was known for having paved many of their roads with salt.
This exhortation would then be to not become actual fools, but rather to remain “wise” in order to remain useful, so as to avoid being thrown outside and trampled by others.
There is one other alternative (or complimentary) view, which I tend to favor.
If Jesus meant that they might become “foolish” to the tastes of others, then he would have been implying that they shouldn't be surprised when their accusers would mistreat them cast them out and trample them. That would make this an exhortation in preparation for that treatment, precisely because they are the salt of the land and cannot cease being “salty,” regardless of whether their accusers consider them “wise” or not. As salt of the land, they would still be used to create a path for others to walk on.
It is along with this latter interpretation we find the great saint and theologian, Theophylact, Archbishop of Ohrid (1055—1107 AD) agreeing. He said:
The prophets were sent to one race only, but you are the salt of the whole land. By your teachings and reproofs you act as an astringent upon the slack and the indolent, so that they will not breed the worms that never die. So do not desist from your astringent reproofs, even if you are reviled or persecuted. …Even the prophets before you were persecuted for the sake of virtue, Jesus said, and so you have the example of their sufferings to give you courage. …[For they were] cast out from the rank of teacher and trodden under foot, that is, despised.
This interpretation also comports well with the following statements about them being the “light of the world”. Again, a more wooden translation of the Greek text would look like this:
You-all are the light of the world. A city laying above a mountain is not capable of being hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a bushel-basket, but upon a lampstand, and it shines for all those in the house. Likewise, shine the light of you-all in the presence of the people, so that they may see the good works of you-all and glorify the Father of you-all who is in the heavens.
Notice carefully that Jesus compares them with two objects: a city set above a mountain and a lamp within a house. In both of these scenarios, night-time and darkness is assumed. So then, if night-time and darkness is the background of these cultural metaphors, a bunch of questions emerge:
- What would it have meant for them to be the light of the world?
- Why is a city laying above a mountain not capable of being hidden, even in darkness?
- Why do people light a lamp and place it upon a lampstand in a house at night?
- Is this merely a metaphor which encourages them to do good works that glorify God?
- Or is Jesus, again, preparing them for the reality that light exposes what is hidden in darkness?
- What is the relationship between shining their light and being fortunate when others revile them, persecute them, and utter all kinds of evil against them falsely on Jesus’ account?
In case Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t seem to be clear enough, it turns out that both Luke and Mark record these very same words of Jesus within a context of exposing what is hidden in darkness.
Luke 8:4–17 says:
And when a great crowd was gathering and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable, “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” As he said these things, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’ Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.No one after lighting a lamp covers it with a jar or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light. For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light.
And Mark 4:10—25 says:
And when he [Jesus] was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’ ” And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” And he said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand? For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
Here is what I think Matthew’s literary design shows us: What Luke and Mark teach explicitly about exposing what is hidden in darkness, Matthew prefaces with a beatitude about suffering persecution and false accusations for Christ’s sake. Suffering for Christ’s sake until the coming judgment upon Israel would definitively expose who was living in darkness and who was the light of the world. Those who heard the words of Jesus and cherished them in an honest and good heart, and produced fruit with patient endurance through trials were the ones exposing what was hidden in darkness.
The main point of these metaphors is to prepare the people of Israel to be the light of the world as Christians—on Jesus’ account—and to be willing to receive persecution for it.
Not everyone whose deeds are exposed by their light would glorify their father in heaven, but many would. This is what the Book of Acts is about: Witnessing to the nations, reconciling Jews and Gentiles as one Body in Christ, while receiving persecution from the anti-Christian Jewish authorities.
Notice also that Jesus doesn’t go into detail about what their good works are. Since Christ’s Kingdom was coming in that generation, and Israel’s kingdom was coming to an end, their faithful shining of light into the darkness, and suffering persecution for loyalty to Jesus, were their good works.
In closing, the insights of St Theophylact describe exactly what I’ve been trying to illustrate above. He wrote:
First He calls them salt and then light. He who reproves what is done in secret is light, “for whatsoever doth make manifest is light.” The apostles did not enlighten one nation only, but the world. Jesus teaches them to struggle and to be strict in living a virtuous life, for they will be in view of all. Do not imagine, He says, that you will be hidden away in some corner, for you will be most visible. See to it, then, that you live blamelessly, lest you become a stumbling block for others.
In the next post I will continue to discuss the relationship of this "fortunate" situation with what Jesus meant by fulfilling the Law and the Prophets.
1. Notice carefully that this section ("C") contains six distinctive sections. I only mention this now because I will be bringing it up again in future posts, when addressing section C', which also contains six distinctive sections.
2. "it" refers to the salt