May my words be in the name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit.
In our gospel reading today Jesus tells his followers that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. These are very powerful metaphors – so powerful that Christ is bestowing great honour upon those of us who are his followers … so great that it would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of the honour implied by those words – or the grave duty that accompanies them. But I think it might be necessary to explain just why the images of salt and light constitute such potent metaphors. Nearly 2000 years separate from the age in which our Lord spoke these words … and the differences between out technological age and then may make it difficult indeed to appreciate the impact these words would have had on their original audience.
We may, for example, in this age of electricity, forget what life was like for most of human history once the sun set and darkness reigned over the land. There was no flick of a switch to make the inside of a house as bright as day then, none of the street lights that make our towns and cities shine with a brightness that can be seen from space. In the time of Christ there was only the glow of the fire and the flickering light from tiny lamps burning olive oil to bring illumination into the darkness of the night. Many here will be old enough to remember the days of the oil shortages back in the 1970s, a time when it was common to turn off the power for long periods every evening due to lack of fuel to power the generators that feed the national grid. I remember doing my homework by candlelight on the long winter nights as a result, my mother preparing the tea on a small gas stove we used for camping in the kitchen while the rest of us gathered round the open fire in the living room which was now the only source of heat … and only a few candles burning at that, as the sudden increased demand for them had made them hard enough to come by. It gives one a whole new appreciation for how important light is. And a better understanding, I think, of what great significance it was for Christ to tell his followers that they were the light of the world.
It is much the same with salt. We think of it as being something cheap that we can pop down to the local shop for whenever we need it. It is so plentiful that we are generally told by various experts to use less. Indeed, there is usually so much of it already in the processed foods we eat that we could probably manage quite well if we never bought another container of salt again in our lives. It is all too easy for us to forget that we need a certain amount of it in our diet if we are to live.
But it was not so in the ancient world. Salt was hard to come by and valuable as a result. So necessary was it that it wasn't uncommon for soldiers to receive part of their pay in salt rather than cash – it is where we get the expression that someone is worth their salt if they do their work well and are therefore worth their pay. And where did salt come from? Often from the salt mines, places so terrible to work in that only slaves and condemned criminals were sent there. Or it could be taken laboriously from the sea, by flooding a piece of land, and then letting the heat of the sun evaporate the water away leaving the salt behind – a slow process indeed. And salt, of course, as well as being needed to sustain life, adds flavour to food and would have been one of the main way of preserving food back in that era. Indeed, we still use it for that purpose today – even though refrigeration and the use of canning makes it less common.
The advances in technology may serve to soften the impact of the great compliment Jesus is paying to his followers here – and the importance of the task he is assigning them. For he is not only comparing them to these things that are so necessary for human life – he is using them to stress how imperative it is for them to bring light and life into the world by living the Christian life openly and boldly in the world, in a way that gives glory to our Father in heaven.
And I draw to a close, it is important to remind all here of our Lord's words concerning those who claim to be his followers but fail to follow through on being the salt of the earth or the light of the world. They are useless lights, lights that are hidden under a bushel basket, a basket so tightly woven that not even a chink of light could escape; and they are salt that has lost its savour, good for nothing, fit only to be thrown out and trampled under foot. I don't know about you, but it doesn't seem to me that those images convey the idea that our Lord will be best pleased with anyone fitting that description when they stand before him at the final judgement.
So the stakes are high. But is there anything that this world offers that should tempt us away from giving glory to God by being the light of the world, the salt of the earth? A giving of glory that ends in everlasting glory for those who give it. I think not – indeed, I pray that all here will give such glory to the God who made them and sent his Son to die on the cross for their salvation this day and always. Amen.