The Parables of Salt and Light
Each autumn we usually make a bucket of sauerkraut for the winter. To prepare it, my wife buys an enormous cabbage from our local market. I shred the cabbage, put it in a sterilized bucket with salt and spices, and beat it with a 2x4. After I put a weight on top, I seal it up with a one-way air valve, so oxygen can't spoil the lactose fermentation process.
Salt-curing was the main way of food preservation for ages. When Jesus talked about salt to his listeners. They knew it was all about preservation. They knew they were learning how to be preserved and preserve others for the kingdom of heaven.
But what does being salt of the earth and light of the world really mean?
This often quoted passage about being salt of the earth comes from gospel of Matthew, but to really understand it I think it's best to look at all three versions from Matthew, Mark and Luke.
Matthew 5:13-16“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.
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 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. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where
“‘the worms that eat them do not die,
and the fire is not quenched.’
Everyone will be salted with fire.
“Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”
Luke 14:34-35“Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out.
“Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
Let's first focus on the version from Mark since he adds some helpful details. If we put on our poor sinner's ears and our repentant heart, our understanding grows even deeper.
We must begin the search by understanding who the audience was. In all three versions, Jesus was teaching his disciples. In Mark, Jesus tells his disciples categorically to not cause "the little ones who believe in me to sin." The little ones refers to the humble servants and believers of Christ, maybe ones who are less knowledgeable of the teachings. He is teaching the leaders and the disciples how to preserve the church with 'salt'. He doesn't mince words here. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. He calls us to even pluck out that wandering eye. Now, it seems harsh, but he's serious. I'm surprised we don't see more church leaders with missing appendages and eye patches!
This teaching about salt boils down to being repentant in an active way. We must know we are sinners and root out the evil in our hearts, especially those who teach about Jesus to others. James (v. 3:1) makes this very clear when he explains that "not many of you should presume to be teachers...because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly." We must actively pursue the sin within and expel it from our souls. The pain that follows repentance is the "fire" he talks about in verse 49 of Mark 9. This is how we and the church in general are preserved for the Day of Wrath. The salt is active and living repentance.
Jesus explains in Matthew and Luke, "[I]f 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." From a chemical standpoint, salt can't lose its saltiness, but preserved foods can lose their saltiness if rain or water washes the salt away. If we spoil, we can't be re-salted. When our sauerkraut looks green, red, orange and yellow, there's no way I could get my kids to eat it no matter how much salt I add to it! It's fit for the compost. The same goes for us when we are spoiled rotten.
In Mark, Jesus adds that we should "have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other." I think he's explaining that while we must individually be repentant, we must also provide forgiveness to one another. And this will bring about peace—a peace that we should strive for.
Having peace within our church, we can then be the "salt of the earth." We will help preserve the world. We do it through the forgiveness we seek, the forgiveness we offer, and the peace we provide. But it starts with active and living repentance in our own lives.
Finally, Jesus adds in Matthew, that we are also "light of the world." The parable of light follows the parable of salt, because if we, and our church, display that peace and forgiveness, then we will shine a light that is totally contradictory to the shadow under which the rest of humanity exists. We will be a beacon of hope in a dark world. And people will be drawn to us. But to do so, we must exhibit the characteristics of grace and peace, which are key components of God's love.
That's the way it should be. But how often is this the case in our families and our churches? We can't take the salt lightly in the diet of our church, especially for our church leaders.
Salt and light go together. We must be repentant and when we do so, we turn our gaze toward our redeemer and begin shining his light. Luke offers us the best picture of what this light really is. (Luke 11:33-36)
No one lights a lamp and puts it in a place where it will be hidden, or under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, so that those who come in may see the light. Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are healthy, your whole body also is full of light. But when they are unhealthy, your body also is full of darkness. See to it, then, that the light within you is not darkness. Therefore, if your whole body is full of light, and no part of it dark, it will be just as full of light as when a lamp shines its light on you.
These verses are of critical importance. Notice that 'eye' is singular. We have one eye in our body, not two. Our eye is our focus. It is our longings, our hope, our dreams, and our faith. It is what all of our focus goes toward. This eye leads us places. Our eye must be on Jesus. We are told by Luke in the next chapter what our eye should be doing: seeking first the kingdom of God.
Notice in Matthew that Jesus explains, "Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven." We can have good deeds, but they come from our heavenly Father. But remember, good deeds follow our saltiness. The results of being actively repentant are good deeds. In fact, since they come from the Father, good deeds are inevitable for the actively repentant sinner. Ultimately though, these good deeds are really only one thing: God's Love.
But when the deeds start flowing for us, be sure to shine the light of yours to others. And keep in mind that we must not fall prey to what happen to Lucifer with his light. Satan dwells on his light. Your light from Christ is for others to see. If you spend time focusing on your own light it will do no good for our world, our church or you. Keep your eye on Jesus.
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.