“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, 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 in heaven. Matthew 5:13-16
In 1630, Puritan leader John Winthrop sitting on board the ship Arbella looked up the new city of Boston and her high hills, and it reminded him of this passage from the Gospel of Matthew, “You are a city on a hill.” Now this passage has been used by many people for many different reasons and to prove many various points, but what does it mean, from the Gospel standpoint to be the salt and light of the earth and to be set up on a hill?
For Governor Winthrop the hope was that this new colony, this new group of people, would set the example for generations to come all around the globe as a way to live, but he also cautioned that since the city was so high upon this hill, figuratively and narratively, that the world would indeed be watching and therefore we would be held to a much higher standard.
This passage come between the Sermon on the Mount and the programmatic saying of Jesus about himself and about those who would follow. It is a bridge between the two if you will that closes out one passage but also sets up what is to come in the next section. The Sermon on the Mount ends with a very personal saying, Jesus says “You who are persecuted,” before that Jesus is speaking in more general terms about people, “Blessed are those who…” What Jesus is saying here is you who are persecuted for my sake MUST be the salt and light of the world. This is an imperative statement, and Jesus is commanding those of us who will be persecuted in his name to step up. Not unlike what Governor Winthrop was saying in 1630.
There is an interesting turn of phrase happening in this passage, Jesus is speaking to people as individuals, but he is also speaking to the church if you will. You are the salt of the earth but not for yourself, and you are the light of the world but not for yourself, we have to do something with this salt and this light, or it will lose its saltiness, and the light will go out. If we exist only for ourselves or for those right around us, our mission will fail.
Each of us is called to be the light and the salt, but it is, in fact, the community, as a whole, that is being challenged to be the salt and the light to the world we must work together if we are to be an effective witness. The early settlers of Boston could have gone their separate ways, but their strength came in working together to build the city that survives to this day. No one person can hold off the enemy when the enemy approaches, but the community working together can.
Jesus is also not saying that the salty ones become the elites of the world as some ethical giants that must be obeyed, far from it. Salt adds flavor to everything; it adds that zest in food that enhances the flavor that already exists with the food. The Christian is to come along side and accentuate the work that is already being done, not judging the work or the workers, but adding zest to their lives.
It is only as the church genuinely proclaims the Gospel of Christ and that Christ is the Risen Lord, that is, not by just spouting mere theological platitudes, that the church can truly be the light and salt of the earth. The effectiveness of the witness of the church comes when the message is the message that truth is truth and that message and that truth are that God loves each one of us and sent his Son to show us the way.
The Christian life will not be easy, and Jesus addresses that directly at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, blessed are YOU when YOU are persecuted for my faith. He did not say blessed are those, as he does with all of the other passages, but this becomes personal for each one of us and each person listening. We must be that city on that hill, we must be the salt and the light of the earth, and we must be like a lamp in full view for all to see.