Matthew 5:13-16 – Salt and Light

A call to help others fully realize their own best selves.

13 “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 underfoot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.15 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. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

In other words, we are to bring flavor and brightness to the world.  It’s not exactly “let your freak flag fly,” but I do think Jesus would appreciate the diversity of people in the world fully expressing themselves.  Can’t you just imagine Jesus hanging out at the local library for Drag Queen Story Hour, blessing all the children and those spreading love and acceptance?

But life isn’t one big Mardi Gras parade.  While I truly believe this passage is saying to not hide your light but to let it shine; to bring your own unique flavor to the world – this passage calls us to go far beyond just personal self expression.  It calls us to help others to fully realize their own best selves, too.  This can mean lots of things, but most of all it means activism.  It means supporting girls’ and womens’ education in places where they are not currently given those opportunities.  It means allowing refugees easier access to our country, so they can escape oppression and make safer and better lives for themselves.  It means Autism Acceptance, an Autistic-led movement to counter basic awareness, that allows for full expression of Autistic behavior (in a safe way) and participation in society.  Maybe it even means Universal Basic Income – a concept I’ll admit I have not researched much but one that does hold immediate appeal.

Yes, go be that City on the Hill.  Stand up for what you believe in, especially if you are in a place of privilege – because for many, it is too dangerous for them to go to school, express their love, or even just walk down the street.  We all need to work together to make this world as bright and flavorful as it can be.

Matthew 5:1-12 – The Beatitudes

“Presenting a new set of ideals that focus on love and humility rather than force and exaction.”

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad,because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The Sermon on the Mount runs Matthew 5:1-7:29 and is loaded with teachings and subcontexts.  I am going to be breaking it down a little further than my normal chapter-by-chapter discussion, because I don’t want to gloss over anything. As Wikipedia says, “The Sermon is the longest continuous discourse of Jesus found in the New Testament, and has been one of the most widely quoted elements of the Canonical Gospels. It includes some of the best known teachings of Jesus, such as the Beatitudes, and the widely recited Lord’s Prayer. The Sermon on the Mount is generally considered to contain the central tenets of Christian discipleship.”  In other words, The Sermon on the Mount is a BFD.

The Sermon on the Mount opens with the Beatitudes, or “blessings.”  There’s some varying schools of thought as to whom these Beatitudes address (especially the rather vague “poor in spirit”) and what they mean.  Most hold that these mostly undesirable positions (mourning, meek, etc) are rendered desirable because that very condition described allows us access to the Kingdom of Heaven.  Others hold that Jesus was indicating that the Kingdom of Heaven is accessible to everyone regardless of their station in life or what they had or had not suffered.

As I mentioned a few posts back, I think the Beatitudes offer dual blessings on those who suffer and those who help the suffering, as they have close parallels.  There are eight total blessings, and the first four can be paired with the last four: “poor in spirit” with “those who are merciful;” “those who mourn” with “the pure of heart;” “the meek” with “the peacemakers,” and “those that hunger and thirst for righteousness” with “those who are persecuted because of righteousness.”  Again, I have no theological training so this is just personal opinion, but let’s start with that “poor in spirit” phrase.

I take “poor in spirit” to mean anyone struggling with any sort of mental or emotional duress, whether that be PTSD, depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, or even temporary, sub-diagnosable anxiety and stress just brought on by difficult times in life.  This would make sense as a group recognized in Jesus’ blessings:  with today’s understanding of mental health, many of Jesus’ healings and casting of out demons is actually thought to be for people with clinical psychiatric disorders.  They weren’t “crazy” or “demonic,” but sick.  Jesus recognized that at a time when many did not.

The parallel blessing to “the poor in spirit” is “those who are merciful.”  Remember, during Jesus’ time there was a huge stigma against those suffering many illnesses, whether physical or mental.  So, to be merciful to the sick or “demon-possessed” really took some courage.  We’ve come a long way, but the stigma around “invisible illnesses” still exists. Invisible illnesses include mental disorders, such as anxiety or depression, but also things like food allergies and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.  The “but you don’t look sick” mentality is actively hurting people in today’s society – not to mention our crap health care system in general – so we still have a way to go as a society to being worthy of the merciful blessing.

Going back to the blessings of those who suffer is “those who mourn.”  I think readers throughout history have agreed this is the most straightforward blessing.  It is easy to identify those who mourn, and it certainly doesn’t feel “blessed” to be the one mourning, but through the Beatitudes, Jesus reminds those who are mourning that God sees them, and cares for them, and that in the Kingdom of Heaven there will be no more tears.

Following our pairing structure, “those who mourn” is coupled to “the pure of heart,” and I’ll admit it’s probably the most clunky pairing.  But taken in the context of mourning, I think it can be seen as a blessing for those whose faith is strong enough to see themselves (and maybe even others) through times of mourning.  Many people lose faith after the death of a child, or during war-time, or from suffering abuse.  And God doesn’t love those people any less, but perhaps Jesus just wanted to acknowledge the special faith of those who mourn and don’t lose faith.  They may suffer sorrow just as everyone does, but their hearts are pure enough (i.e., faithful enough) to not let it dissuade their following God.

Next up: the meek.  This one has been contentious throughout history, some claiming it promotes a slave morality.  Certainly it has been used to promote that: a good slave submits to his master, a good wife submits to her husband, etc, etc.  But I think anyone wielding this verse in that way is working off a misinformed reading.  I think Jesus is recognizing those without agency in society.  The shut-ins, the forgottens, the cast-offs.  Jesus sees the slave, the abused wife, the ones who have no voice, and says as much with this line.

Just a few verses later, Jesus blessed those that speak out for the meek: the peacemakers.  True peace cannot be achieved through the oppression of others, so the peacemakers may not always be the pacifists one might immediately picture.  In fact, some peacemakers are downright strident.  Jesus himself has some stern rebukes for those who may harm the weak.  Telling off the crowd about to stone a prostitute to death is one example that comes to mind.

Last of the “suffering” blessed: those that hunger and thirst for righteousness.  This group could be lumped in with the meek, but I think it implies more of a pervasive societal context.  For example, a victim of elder abuse might be one of the meek, but a black man wrongfully imprisoned would be one of those that hunger and thirst for righteousness.  “The system,” if you will, isn’t prejudiced against the victim of elder abuse – perhaps they are in late stages of dementia and truly unable to make decisions for themselves.  Their family put them in a home without knowing what was going to happen to their loved one, and that, while a very sad story, is not one of systemic injustice.  A black man wrongfully imprisoned, however, is.  This country’s judicial system is set up in a way that ensures higher and longer incarceration rates for black men than their white counterparts.  Righteousness is nowhere to be found, and those that fall victim to the biases of the system do, indeed, hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Finally, blessed are those that are persecuted because of righteousness.  Anyone who has ever been arrested for participating in a civil rights march, for defending sacred grounds against pipelines, or for standing up for the rights of others has received Jesus’ blessing, regardless of their own religion.

I really liked the Wikipedia article on the Beatitudes.  It summed them up nicely saying “Together, the Beatitudes present a new set of ideals that focus on love and humility rather than force and exaction.”  Just as Jesus time in the desert shows us what kind of Messiah he will be (a relatable one with a humanity just like ours), the very first message of his first big discourse shows us what he (and God) values: love above all else.  Jesus sees the unseen, as made clear by the first four blessings.  He also sees those of us that act out of love, as made clear by the second four blessings.  I pray that you do not have to suffer the misfortunes of the first four blessings, but rather that you can be an agent of the last four.  But know this: no matter what side of the coin you fall upon, Jesus sees you, and Jesus loves you.  The Beatitudes give us the proof.

Matthew 04 – Trouble Trusting the Gospel

A symbolic portrait illustrating the kind of Messiah Jesus would be.

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
    and they will lift you up in their hands,
    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’[c]

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ ”

11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:

15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
    the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
    Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people living in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
    a light has dawned.”

17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him.

21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. 24 News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. 25 Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.

This chapter can be broken into three parts: The Temptation of Jesus, the Calling of the first Disciples, and Jesus healing the sick.  I find it one of the most challenging parts of Matthew because it leaves so many questions unanswered.  For example, how did Zebedee feel when his sons just up and walked away from their work?  He was right there, mentioned in the story – we don’t get a line about his reaction?

And what about this Temptation in the Desert story?  How do we know it happened?  It is not Jesus telling this story, remember, it is Matthew.  And it’s not like Matthew was there – Jesus was alone in the wilderness.  Also, it’s not like Jesus left and returned to Matthew:  This test came before the calling of Jesus’ disciples.  I guess it makes sense that Jesus would have told them about it, just as anyone recounts interesting and relevant stories to their friends.  It just seems so stylized with exactly three tests and exactly forty days and forty nights.

Of course, if you don’t believe in Jesus (or at least, don’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God, even if he did exist as a person), then it is easy to dismiss this Temptation story – or even cite is as proof of the Gospels’ faults and the list it among the longer list of faults in the Bible at large.  True, it is a second-hand story and we have no way to verify it.  So that means it is possible that it didn’t happen.  Or, that it didn’t happen the way Matthew says it happened-which, honestly is what I believe.  I’ve expressed my admiration for Matthew before, and the delicacy with which he had to write this Gospel, but the guy had an agenda and bias, for sure.  I don’t think he lied, but I do think he carefully crafted this work to show how the life of Jesus fit into the teachings of venerated prophets.  This Temptation story is the perfect place to fit in scriptural references to highlight Jesus’ personal knowledge of the Old Testament and use significant and symbolic numbers (three and forty) to further solidify Jesus’ standing in the minds of Matthew’s Jewish readers.

I see this story as a symbolic portrait, kind of like the Jesus version of George Washington Crossing the Delaware River.  For those unfamiliar with it, in December 1776 George Washington did indeed surprise and defeat the British-allied forces when he crossed the river in the Battle of Trenton, later commemorated in a painting by Emanuel Leutz.  However, the crossing was at night – and I’ve never seen a night that looks like this painting; Washington’s heroic stance would have capsized the boat; and – I just learned this – the flag depicted in the painting wasn’t a design in use at that time, but it is one we all recognize as an early American flag.  Real event, idealized depiction.  Matthew (possibly) did the same thing here in the Gospel.

My NIV study notes provided excellent insight into this Temptation of Jesus story.  It reads, “The significance of Jesus’ temptations, especially because they occurred at the outset of his public ministry, seems best understood in terms of the kind of Messiah he was to be…It was, moreover, important that Jesus be tempted/tested  as Israel and we are, so that he could become our ‘merciful and faithful high priest’ (Heb. 2:17).” In other words, this story illustrates how Jesus goes through temptations just as we do, and highlights his humanity.  However, unlike us, Jesus resists all temptations, establishing his divinity at the same time.  It’s really quite an elegant piece of writing, after you sit with it for a bit.

If this little tidbit of Gospel makes you uncomfortable, seriously question your belief in Jesus, or even reaffirm your disbelief in Jesus, I get it.  It’s a passage that really challenges my faith.  But remember, not any single passage defines the Jesus’ message, or the Bible at large – we have to read in context, and look for broader themes.  In this passage, we can recognize Jesus as a real man who faced temptation – even if you see him as a fictional character you can acknowledge that those who wrote about him saw him as flesh-and-bone, not a divine apparition.  He got hungry, tired, angry; he touched people, walked on the ground (as well as the water), and spoke the common language of the time.  Even if he were fictional, he was conceived of as a real man.

I emphasize Jesus’ humanity to bring up my closing point: Jesus was a man who made a difference.  The early disciples mentioned in this chapter heard his message of love and healing, and got up to follow him, as have millions throughout history afterwards.  The chapter closes with Jesus healing the sick.  He had compassion upon those suffering.  Jesus knew suffering: he knew hunger, cold, pain, loneliness, just as we do in our own varying extents.  Even if you don’t believe in the Gospel, don’t believe in Jesus, we can still be like Jesus:  we can have compassion, we can help to heal, we can speak for the oppressed.  And that, my friends, is what I believe Jesus would want us to do.  We can quibble over whether or not he actually spent forty days in the desert, whether or not he was actually tempted by the devil, whether or not he even existed, but time spent wasting our breath on arguments that can never be resolved keeps us from making a positive difference in the world.  To everyone out there making that positive difference – to all the activists, nurses, teachers, volunteers, caretakers, and more – I just want to say thank you.  No matter what your beliefs, I see you as a sibling in Christ doing what matters.  Maybe I’m putting words into Jesus’ mouth the same as Matthew did, but I think Jesus would also see anyone (anyone) making that positive difference as a kindred spirit, as well.