FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY: THE BUILDINGS OF SYMMETRY Matthew 5:13-20
“the light does not absolve or condemn, / it is neither just nor unjust, / the light with invisible hands constructs / the buildings of symmetry;The light goes off through a path of reflections / and comes back to itself: / a hand that invents itself, an eye / that see itself in its own inventions. Light is time thinking about itself.” Octavio Paz: Sight and Touch.
- Jesus said, “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. 14. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15. 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. 16. 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. 17. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
In Matthew 5:1, the Sermon on the Mount begins. After seeing the crowds, Jesus went up the mountain; his disciples came to him. “Then he began to speak, and taught them.” Matthew makes it clear that the Sermon on the Mount was addressed to the disciples of Jesus. This was clearly evident in the Beatitudes, which immediately preceded this present section under discussion. The Sermon on the Mount projects outwards. Here outwards means all around, up and down, in and out. Neither dimension nor direction is alien to its call. It addresses eyes and ears and touch. It speaks to the sensitivities of conscience and discretion. When it is verbal it defies words; when it is silent it defies sound. It is harmony for the soul; it is symmetry for the spirit. The Sermon on the Mount in its entirety is only one verb: Listen! And if one listens deep into the silence, one hears the echo: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord.” Deut. 6:4.
- “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.” The first part of the statement, “You are the salt of the earth” is unique to Matthew. It is his own creation. The second part must have circulated in different forms in the early church. Luke quotes Q and is probably the oldest form of the statement that is extant. Mark knew the statement, but in another form. Q has: “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away. Let anyone with ears to hear listen.” Luke 14: 34-35: “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away. Let anyone with ears to hear listen.” Mark 9:49-50: “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
There are many things that are said about salt in the Bible, but in the present context, the focus is on its saltiness. There is a general agreement here that saltiness is the essence of salt. It is what makes salt salt. Once this essence is lost, the salt is not good for anything. Matthew is saying that the disciples are the salt of the earth. It is not that they are just salt; they are the salt of the earth. For Matthew, the earth is first of all the promised land which shall be restored to Israel; the earth is also the sacred and profane ground out of which arises those to whom he speaks. The earth itself owes something to the disciples without which even the earth is then not what it is meant to be. The holiness of the disciples refreshes the holiness of the earth. That upon which Moses stood was holy ground. Exodus 3:5. The disciples are to shake the dust off their feet if a town does not receive them. Matt. 10:14. Where holiness is not received, judgment prevails. In the apocalyptic view of Jesus, the new aeon has arrived and the old has passed away. The disciples are the first in the new aeon. They were selected by Jesus; they were called by Jesus. He who initiates the new aeon also initiates his disciples. This is something new upon the earth. Into their hands is given the care of the earth. The disciples as salt of the earth purify, preserve, protect the earth. It is to them that the dominion of the new earth is safeguarded.
If the disciples, followers of Jesus, lose what is essential to them, they will be useless also, and the earth will not be safeguarded by them. But just what is essential to discipleship? And why is it important not to lose it? The disciples are the original “initiates” of the kingdom of heaven. They are, in essence, what constitute the kingdom of heaven. Where the disciples are, that is where the kingdom of heaven is to be found. To be a disciple is to be an invitation. Discipleship is the gateway into the kingdom of heaven. They demonstrate unconditional commitment to Jesus and his proclamation of the kingdom of heaven. Their faith may fail them at times; their courage may fail them at times; they may be over-enthusiastic or underwhelming at times; they will complain among themselves and they will seek special privileges at times; but they never stop following Jesus. The essence of discipleship is following Jesus. Discipleship is not a choice; it is a gift. One does not follow Jesus because one has chosen to do so; one follows Jesus because the divine has foreknown, foreordained, and called one to this life. Romans 8:28-30. Jesus knew ahead of time those into whose hands he would consign the earth. Both the calling and the consignment are divine gifts.
This is what Christian discipleship is: one follows him upon whom one’s eyes are fastened; to whom one’s ears are attuned; to whom one’s heart is surrendered; in whom one’s soul is anchored; by whom one’s spirit is quickened, and upon whom one’s mind is stayed. To follow Jesus is to set one’s sight upon the cross: to be the suffering of the oppressed; to be the poverty of the poor; to be the sin of the condemned; to be the illness of the sick; to be the despair of the hopeless; to be the death of the dying; but also, to be the hope of the hopeful and to be the joy of the redeemed. The Apostle Paul gives a spirited defense of this in II Cor. 4:7-12; and 6:3-10. This is the saltiness of which Jesus speaks. If they lose this divine gift, they place the earth in danger. This is certainly impossible to accomplish, if following Jesus were only a human activity rather than a divine gift. And let us not forget that the Lutheran view is that the Sermon on the Mount is an impossible possibility were it not for the grace of God in Christ Jesus. Lest we forget, the Sermon on the Mount is not morality, and it is not ethics. The Sermon on the Mount is the proclamation by Jesus of the salvation which has dawned in his person. One responds to proclamation by hearing. “Let those who have ears to hear listen!”
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.” These two sentences are unique to Matthew. The disciples are the light of the world. Light never looks at itself. It never sees itself. Light shines, that is its essence. It illuminates everything so that each thing may be seen in its proper place. Light has the power to assign belonging that each thing may participate in its rightful place in the harmony for which it longs. A city set on a hill has to be seen, that is the reason for the city being elevated to sight and vision. Similarly, the light has to be seen. Light does not only illuminate. Light has purpose. In Genesis 1:14-18, the sun bestows light upon the day and the moon bestows light upon the night. They shed light upon the earth. In both cases, their light is meant as a boundary to darkness. Their light sets a limit beyond which darkness cannot go. It is not so with world.
The disciples are the light of the world. Their light does not set boundaries; it removes boundaries, all that separate and divide human beings. The light of the disciples opens up a way into the world. It discloses what world is. The world of which the disciples are the light is nothing less than a miracle. It is not created; it comes into being with the appearance of human beings. World arrives simultaneously with humans; it arises of itself to receive humans and to offer security for the arising of the human community wherein ultimately salvation will dawn with its own light. Consequently, world does not refer to a particular place. It has nothing to do with place or space. For this reason, the light of sun and moon cannot penetrate the world. World does not exist as earth does. World refers to the manner in which its inhabitants participate with one another. World is how human beings engage one another; it is transcendentally relational. At the same time world does not describe some kind of internalized human existence. Human beings live together as more than a collection of individuals. Human beings live together purposefully. World defines that shared purpose that has as its unique goal the preservation of humanity from danger and extinction. World refers to the shared hope that humanity can rise above itself and be the city on a hill that cannot be hid. World stands for resolute defiance of death and oblivion. The disciples as light of the world illuminate all this and more.
The disciples are the salt of the earth. They are the light of the world. Matthew presents the disciples in this comprehensive manner to set the stage for the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. In what is to come we will witness a dialogue between earth and world in which the kingdom of heaven will be disclosed in its full radiance.
Verses 15-16 are illustrations of the lighting that pertains to discipleship. They are the practical application of catechesis and exhortation that speak to all followers of Jesus. It is still clear, however, that light illuminates. Light enlightens. The same idea was in circulation prior to Matthew as Q, Mark and Luke make clear. Verse 15 clearly comes from the early tradition. “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.” Q has: “No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar, but on the lampstand so that those who enter may see the light.” Luke 8:16: “No one after lighting a lamp hides it under a jar, or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a lampstand, so that those who enter may see the light.” And Luke 11:33: “No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar, but on the lampstand so that those who enter may see the light.” Mark4:21: “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on a lampstand?” Mark must have known a different version, but the idea is still the same.
What is the social or political background for such a statement? In the context of persecution, is it possible that early Christians were afraid to have lighted lamps in their homes, for fear of being identified in some way? Or perhaps targeted in some way? Was Q already a statement of defiance? Matthew has already spoken in verse 10-11 of persecution “on my account” and it is likely that such persecutions lasted into the time of the writing of his gospel. If he is encouraging the followers of Jesus to light their lamps, is it possible that Matthew was advocating resistance to authorities? I do not believe that Matthew is using the light in a casual manner. The word must have a particular meaning. Lighting a lamp is in effect resisting darkness. Q and Luke state that the placing of the lamp on the lampstand was that “those who enter may see the light.” This is the earliest version: that someone enters somewhere and sees the light. Matthew’s version is different; it is to give “light to all in the house.” This suggests that there is already a gathering in the house. Is this a veiled reference to the early Christian community at worship? (There is a scene in Acts 20 where Paul is at worship with others “on the first day of the week,” and Acts 20:8 reports, “There were many lamps in the room upstairs where we were meeting.” In this meeting, Paul spoke with the worshipers until dawn. I do not claim that this has any bearing on what Matthew says). However, Matthew 5:16 may provide some insight. “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.” This last exhortation is unique to Matthew. It must have a special purpose. If this were a worship context, it would make sense that the gathering would “give glory to your Father in heaven.” I interpret “your good works” here from the context of verse 10, where the disciples are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Good works would then be nothing other than righteousness, a very significant word for Matthew. The meaning then would be: do not hide your righteousness, for it is your righteousness that glorifies your Father in heaven. I have never considered righteousness as a term of defiance and resistance to persecution. Here, it seems to be the logical conclusion of my reflections. This calls for more exploration; but that must wait.
Matthew is proclaiming that the young church must stand firm and show itself as it is, inspite of the risks, danger and death that it will face. The church as light must always remain as God’s miracle to which all are called to rest and redemption. Matt. 11:28-30. This is Matthew’s message to the early church.
Matthew turns his attention to another theme: the law and the prophets. Even though the law is important for Matthew, he uses the word sparingly, only eight times. The law and the prophets have guided the people of Israel. The law and prophets are also light that enlightens. “Your word is a lamp unto my feet and a light to my path.” Psalm 119:105. Whatever its radiance, Jesus affirms it. Jesus says in 5:17. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” This verse is unique to Matthew. Whatever light there is, Jesus is intent upon magnifying it. “A dimly burning wick he will not quench.” Isa. 42:3. Matthew quotes the same in 12:20. Again he says in 5:18. “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” Luke quotes Q, and is probably the more original. Q has: “But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped.” Luke 16:17: “But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter of the law to be dropped.” Luke 21:33 “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Jesus has come to fulfill all ancient predictions.
Matthew presents at least fourteen identifiable prediction and fulfilment episodes: 8 Isaiah. 2 Jeremiah. 1 Micah. 1 Hosea. 2 somewhat ambiguous: 1:22 (Isaiah 7:14 – prophet not named). 2:5 (Micah 5:2- prophet unnamed). 2:15 (Hosea 11:1 – prophet unnamed). 2:17 (Jeremiah 31:15 – prophet named). 2:23 (Isaiah 11:1 – prophet not named. Similarity of “Nazarene” and “branch”). 3:3 (Isaiah 40:3 – prophet named). 4:15 ((Isaiah 9:1-2- prophet named). 8:17 (Isaiah 53:3 – prophet named). 12:17 (Isaiah 42:1-4 – prophet named). 13:14 (Isaiah 69:9-10 – prophet named). 13:35 (Psalm 78:2 – the prophet is Asaph, 2 Chronicles 29:30). 21:4 (Isaiah 62:11 – prophet not named). 26:56 (Reference to fulfilment of prophecy). 27:9 (a collation of Zechariah 11:12 and Jeremiah 18:1-3 – Jeremiah is named).
When Matthew speaks of the law and the prophets, he does not imply two different sources, but means the entirety of scripture that was handed down. Matthew might have known this form of the saying from a different source. He has an interest in the accomplishment of the law and the prophets. What does it mean that Jesus will fulfill the law? For Jesus, the whole law (all the law and the prophets, which is the entire scripture) consists of the love of God and the love of neighbor. Mt.22:36-40. Jesus did not come to bring an end to the law, but to demonstrate by his life what it is to fulfill the law by loving God and neighbor. This is also Paul’s view in Romans 13:8-10. All that the law has required, complete and unconditional obedience to God, and complete dependence upon God’s mercy, are now taken up into the person of the Jesus. When Jesus says, “Follow me!” to the disciples, this is a clear example that following him is fulfilling the law because his word is now the whole content of the law. In his call and in their immediate response, the disciples receive absolution and grace, and that is the fulfilling of the whole law. When he says “Blessed are you” to the disciples the whole law becomes grace because his word is grace itself, and is the fulfilling of the whole law. He fulfills the whole law because eats with prostitutes and sinners, and that is a clear act of forgiveness and restoration. By his touch he heals the untouchable and shows that his love knows no boundary, and thus fulfills the whole law. When he feeds the multitudes with miraculous loaves and fish he shows that he calls them to partake of himself, and thus fulfills the whole law. When he shows mercy to the sick, the dying, the oppressed, he is himself the mercy that they receive, and thus he fulfills the law. He takes the whole law into himself, becomes what the law essentially is, and thereby assures that “until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of the law will pass until all is accomplished.” He in whom eternity resides bears the sacred law: love of God, love of neighbor, for all eternity.
Matthew is confident that Jesus is the eschatological prophet who has come to fulfill ancient prophecies. He is confident that Jesus is the Emmanuel of God who has given new hope to the suffering. He not only instructs his congregation; he also warns them, as in 5:18. Unlike the Apostle Paul, Matthew still has a lofty view of the law. He will not abandon it. And he admonishes those under his care not do so. Verse 19. “Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” This verse is unique to Matthew. What condition prevailed in his church that inspired him to make this statement? If I take the statement as it is, then something like this emerges: (a) there were some members breaking the commandments; (b) they were teaching others to break the commandments. This implies that there was disagreement and conflict in his community. Diverse beliefs were debated. There is evidence that very early disputes arose between the disciples of John the Baptist and the disciples of Jesus. The incompatibility between the church leaders in Jerusalem and Paul was obvious. The letters of Paul contain detailed evidence of internal hostilities in the churches. The confrontations between Jesus (the early church) and the Jewish community are well attested.
Thus, it is not unreasonable to suppose that behind Matthew 5:19 there is indicated a dispute within the congregation. This would provide a good reason for his warning. Beside trying to make peace, he was trying to instill in them a particular point of view of the nature of discipleship. His concern reaches as far as membership in the kingdom of heaven. He feared that those who broke the law and encouraged others to do the same would be excluded from the kingdom of heaven. At the same time he tried to show that those who kept the commandments and taught others were certain to inherit the kingdom of heaven. He himself is being a peacemaker. Matthew has an inclusive and universalistic view of salvation. He teaches that the redemption that arrives with the eschatological prophet is available to all, and he seeks to make all ready to receive it. Discipleship is readiness. Discipleship is alertness. Discipleship is watchfulness. In a way, he is not only teaching, he is at the same time recruiting others to join him. He elevates the urgency to rise above their differences in verse 20. “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This verse is unique to Matthew.
When Jesus tells the people “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees,” he is not referring to an abundance of righteousness, for that itself is inconceivable. The scribes and Pharisees discover their righteousness in the law. In Matthew, such legal righteousness must be transcended, and it is righteousness through discipleship, following Jesus, that is uncovered in the word “exceeds.” It is only through following by faith that one submits to the will of God. Righteousness is the gift that God bestows upon those who submit themselves in faith. As an eschatological gift, it grants disciples entrance into the kingdom of heaven. For this reason, one must “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Righteousness as God’s gift means that righteousness is another name for the grace that redeems. This is vividly stated in Ephesians 2:8. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”