Recently I watched the 1947 movie, Gentleman’s Agreement for the first time. Starring Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire, it told the story of a reporter, Phil Green (Gregory Peck), who poses as a Jew to uncover anti-Semitism in post World War II America. In a climatic scene, Phil’s fiancée, Kathy (Dorothy McGuire), realizes it’s not enough to privately abhor prejudice; you have to do something about it. In the context of Matthew 5:13-16, you have to be salt and light.
Further developing what he’d been teaching his disciples, Jesus said: “You are the salt of the earth. . . . You are the light of the world.” In verses 5:3-10, he described the blessings available to those who were his disciples. He warned them in 5:11-12 of the persecution they would face simply because they wanted to live righteous lives on his account. Here he said you can’t fly under the radar and avoid persecution. Theirs was not to be a life of quietism and retreat from the world. Rather, as Craig Blomberg said, they “must permeate society as agents of redemption.”
The first metaphor was a statement of fact—you are salt of the earth. In our time we think of salt as something that adds flavor—as a supplement—to what we eat. But up until the invention of refrigeration, salt was an essential preservative. That is the meaning of the salt metaphor here. Jesus is saying his disciples are to be a preserving influence on earth. According to Sinclair Ferguson in The Sermon on the Mount, “Christians whose lives exhibit the qualities of the ‘blessed’ will have a preserving impact” upon society.
Salt losing its taste is another saying that makes no sense to moderns, who get pure granulated salt from a Morton’s salt container at the grocery. But the salt used in first-century Palestine was most likely taken from the Dead Sea, where it would have been mixed with other minerals. If the sodium chloride somehow dissolved out of the mixture, it would leave “salt” that had lost its “saltiness” (sodium chloride). Good for nothing, it was tossed into the street, which was the garbage can of ancient cities.
Once again in Matthew 5:14 Jesus directly addresses the disciples, now saying they are (factually) the light of the world. It’s the same message as in the previous verse, but with a different image. In each case the target is broadly described—the earth and the world. It’s like saying, if you didn’t get it the first time, I’ll tell you again another way: “you are the light of the world.” You can’t hide; and you shouldn’t hide.
We lose some of the power of the metaphor today as we live with electricity in huge cities, where darkness is typically an annoyance or inconvenience, not something that stops human work and activity until the sun comes up the next day. Rural living or wilderness vacations get moderns closer to an understanding of the image. Until the widespread use of electricity, nightfall was DARK. A city on a hill, with its cooking fires and torches would have been an incredible contrast to the surrounding darkness. You could not hide it.
Conversely, it makes no sense to light an oil lamp and then put a basket over it. You put it on a lamp stand where it can illuminate the entire room. Now the light from an oil lamp doesn’t compete well with that from even a forty-watt light bulb. But recall how grateful you were to get that one candle lit when your electricity went out and the batteries in your flashlight were dead.
Notice also the contrast between the light of a city on a hill that can’t be hidden and that of an oil lamp that could be hidden. The disparity of the two images suggests that, whether your “light” is big or small, you shouldn’t try to hide it. It makes no sense and ultimately can’t be done. Rather, let it shine so others can see it.
The “light” is the light of righteousness in verse 5:10 that is ultimately from Jesus Christ. He is the great light who has dawned upon those dwelling in darkness (Matthew 4:16). He is the light of the world (John 8:12). His disciples, those who have been brought out of the kingdom of darkness into his kingdom of light (Colossians 1:12-13), are to now live as children of the light (Ephesians 5:8). Again turning to Sinclair Ferguson:
Jesus is underlining the challenge, which is stated so clearly in his Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20): the whole world is to be our sphere of influence. To reduce it to anything less would be tantamount to restricting the power, authority, and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.
This is not a Christianized “jihad,” calling for forced conversion or subjection. The light of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount is seen in his disciples as they are poor in spirit, mourning for sin, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers in their daily lives with other “earth” people living in this world. “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” (Mathew 5:16).
Parallel to the followers of Jesus living out the beatitudes as they are salt and light to the world, members of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) put their program into action as well. Bill W. said repeatedly that “A.A. is more than a set of principles; it is a Society of alcoholics in action. We must carry the message, else we ourselves can wither and those who haven’t been given the truth will die.” You can find this statement in The Language of the Heart (p. 160), Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age (p. 139), and the pamphlet, A.A.’s Legacy of Service.
In A.A. Comes of Age, Bill added that action was the magic word. “Action to carry A.A.’s message is therefore the heart of our Third Legacy of Service.” He defined A.A. service as “anything whatever that helps us to reach a fellow sufferer—ranging from the Twelfth Step itself to a ten-cent phone call and a cup of coffee. . . . The sum total of all these services is our Third Legacy of Service.” The Twelfth Step reads: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and practice these principles in all our affairs.” The linked pamphlet, A.A.’s Legacy of Service, goes on to tell some of the early history of A.A. More detail of that history, focusing on the Three Legacies, can be found in The Language of the Heart and Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age.
The life of service and recovery within A.A. is not identical to that described by Jesus within the Sermon on the Mount to his disciples. But I suspect they would all agree with this statement from Bill W.’s “Step Twelve” essay in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions: “True ambition in not what we thought it was. True ambition is the deep desire to live usefully and walk humbly under the grace of God.”
This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”