Fifth Sunday after Epiphany — February 5, 2023

As salt of the world, Christians are called to bring out the God-given goodness that already exists around us. But we can't forget that Jesus' command in Matthew 5:13 is plural: we can only be salt of the world when we act alongside our Christian siblings.

Year A
Matthew 5:13-20

It was my turn to make dinner, and I had opted for a new recipe — angel hair pasta coated in a sauce combining roasted garlic, butter, pasta water and a bag of spinach. It smelled heavenly. It tasted like dehydrated ocean water.

I had oversalted the pasta water, effectively ruining the dish. Laughing, my husband and I both refilled our water glasses several times as we suffered through our bowls.

No doubt that meal will enter our family lore as an evening when nothing went right (Did I mention I also set half a box of pasta on fire?), but it stands out in my mind as a reminder of the power of salt.

When used correctly, salt can call out flavors and bring food alive. Just think of a warm brown butter chocolate chip cookie sprinkled with flakey sea salt. Is there anything better?

Salt can also act as a preservative. It can clean and heal wounds. According to M. Eugene Boring’s Matthew Commentary in The New Interpreter’s Bible, salt also represented sacrifice (Leviticus 2:13; Ezekiel 42:24), covenant fidelity (Ezra 4:14; Numbers 18:19), and eating together as a way of creating a binding relationship to Matthew’s readers.

This evocative, multi-layer metaphor for discipleship opens Sunday’s Gospel passage. It is the role that Jesus, through the pen of Matthew, says is ours. By nature of being a follower of Jesus, we bring out the best in others — the goodness God has already created. We cleanse. We preserve. We bind.

Our purpose is derived from and through our relationship with the world around us. As Boring writes, “Salt does not exist for itself, nor do the disciples; their life is turned outward to the world.” We are people with a mission, the same mission of Israel and Jesus Christ: to care for the world in a way that goes against the standard and, in doing so, teach others about God.

And, yes, when misused salt can be overpowering — as was the case with my green pasta failure. Salt can also lose its integrity when mixed with other elements, as referenced the latter half of verse 13. But when used appropriately, it is deeply effective, not because it tries hard but because of its God-given nature.

There is a strong emphasis in verse 13 and the whole passage about Jesus’ disciples sharing God’s love with the world. But there is a communal aspect to these metaphors and commands that is important to note. They might be more accurately interpreted for us English speakers to say “Y’all are the salt of the earth.” Or, if you are from Pittsburgh as I am, “Yinz are the light of the world.”

Our saltiness doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We cannot follow Jesus’ example unless we are united with our Christian siblings. In other words, there is something about being in relationship with other believers that allows us to become who God intends for us to be.

But it is hard work to create meaningful community. When we seek to know people beyond niceties and waves, we almost always find – to put it bluntly – that people are annoying. People talk too much, they vote for political candidates who make your skin crawl, they run meetings the “wrong” way, they interrupt you, they demand your time.

Sharing a faith does not automatically make it easy to have a relationship with someone. In fact, when you connect with someone over something as essential as your belief system, it can make conflict easier because opinions run deep and the stakes feel high. Yet these verses make it clear that we cannot carry out Jesus’ mission if we are not linked.

So how can we make this work? I’ve recently been inspired to love people by Valarie Kaur. In her book See No Stranger, she suggests that one way to practice love and acceptance is to develop a sense of wonder, to “look upon the face of anyone and choose to say, ‘you are a part of me I do not yet know.’”

What would it look like if we treated our Christian siblings, especially the ones that we find difficult to be around, with wonder? What if we practiced love with each other in the church?

Scripture calls us to look outward into the world, but we can’t forget that our actions as disciples start with how we treat our siblings in Christ. It is our connection with each other, and the grace of the Holy Spirit, that makes us salt of the world.

For discussion:

  • What does it mean to be “salt of the earth?” This phrase has become commonplace in the English language. Try replacing with other spices (“You are the gochujang (red chili paste) of the earth, bringing out the zest of life.” “You are the basil of the earth, bringing out the brightness of life.”) Does this change how you hear or understand the metaphor at all?
  • There is so much division in the church. Do you think this conflict affects the call of the church as given by Jesus? If so, how?
  • Think of one person you know personally in the church who is difficult to love. How might your relationship with them change if you approach them with wonder?
  • How can the church model love without turning inward? In other words, how can we seek to be united with our siblings in Christ without forgetting the call of disciples to share the gospel with the whole world?

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