Its fair to say that Donald Trump is well known for coming out with some controversial statements. He’s not someone who holds back his opinion, without seeming to care who he offends. He calls a spade a spade! His ‘State of the Union’ address this week in Washington DC caused quite a stir, and his Twitter account is always very active!
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, meanwhile, was not so much controversial as confusing. He is actually one of my colleagues now at St Mellitus College. He has a huge brain, but its fair to say he lacks clarity of communication – his theological essays are notoriously dense and hard to decipher. Rather than calling a spade a spade, he would be more likely to refer to it as a “flat-surfaced horticultural instrument”!
As we return to Jesus’s sermon on the mount this morning, we come across some words of his that seem both controversial and confusing in equal measure.
In particular, there are three remarkable statements of his that I want to unpack today. Three verses that may be familiar to many of us, but are perplexing, powerful and provocative. I shall try to shed some light on them! They are:
Let’s take each in turn…
Be salty! (v.13-16)
Jesus’ first perplexing statement is right at the start of our passage, in verse 13. He says: “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.”
Salt (or sodium chloride for the chemists among us!) was used in at least two ways in ancient world, and Bible scholars debate exactly which one Jesus had in mind:
• Firstly, as a Preservative, to keep food like fish and meat fresh, free from decay;
• And secondly, as a flavouring, to enhance the taste of food.
In verses 14 to 16 Jesus uses two more metaphors – his disciples are to be like light and like a town on a hill. He says: “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.”
Not only are these words easier to understand, they help us to interpret his previous statement about salt. The key thing about light, especially a light on a stand, is that it is distinctive and visible. Light shines in the darkness, a light stands out at night, bright light is visible for all to see. Similarly, a town or city on a hill is unmistakable – it is a distinctive landmark for miles around.
So the key point Jesus is making is that salt is distinctive – just as light is distinct from darkness and an urban area is distinct from the countryside. To be effective as a flavouring, preservative or as a fertilizer, salt must be different to whatever it is mixed with.
Therefore, Christians must be visibly distinctive in our behaviour compared to non-Christian neighbours. Christians in society need to be salty and stay salty!
We saw last week in the Beatitudes some of the character traits of a Christian disciple, some of the distinctive qualities we should have, which will make us stand out in this fallen world. Qualities like meekness, purity of heart, poverty of spirit and a hunger for righteousness.
Our first reading today, Psalm 112, helpfully describes some of the distinctive attributes of a righteous person. That Psalm says they will be:
Can I encourage you sign up for our Lent Course, called “Fruitfulness on the frontline”. It is designed to help us be distinctive and salty in our community. The different sessions are designed to teach us some ways we can add value to our communities. They teach us different ways we can be distinctively Christian in 21st century Britain. All beginning wth the letter M, the different sessions of the course will teach us how to:
In our country, Christians with these righteous qualities should stand out a mile! If we consistently exhibit these character traits we will be visibly different from the rest of society. We will be marching to a different drum, we will be glorifying God and attracting people to Jesus Christ. In short, we will be truly salty!
Believe in Jesus – he fulfils the law and the prophets (v.17)
Our second contentious sentence today comes in verse 17, where Jesus says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
But what does it mean for Jesus to fulfil the Law and the Prophets?
Well, the first thing to understand is that the law and the prophets is a shorthand expression for the Old Testament. So this sentence means that Jesus fulfils the Old Testament – but how?
Firstly, Jesus fulfils the Old Testament in the sense that his life and work is prophesied and predicted in it. For example:
No wonder that when the risen Jesus walked with two disciples on the road to Emmaus he explained the Old Testament to them. He pointed out how the Law, the Prophets and Psalms all pointed straight at him, if only we have eyes to see.
More than this, Jesus also fulfils the Old Testament by embodying all the Old Testament laws and values:
No wonder Jesus’ best friend Peter described him as “sinless” and even Pontius Pilate declared him to be innocent. Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament law by obeying it in every way – in spirit not just to the letter.
Be righteous! (v.20)
This brings us to Jesus’ final provocative statement that I want us to look at today. It comes in verse 20, where he says: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Those are challenging words aren’t they? For a start, Jesus is telling us to aspire to a standard of righteousness that is above and beyond the letter of Old Testament law. Above and beyond the standard of behaviour that the Jewish scribes and Pharisees tried to follow.
As we look at the rest of Sermon on the Mount over the coming weeks, we’ll see how Jesus deepens and extends the standards set in Old Testament law. As Bible commentator Michael Green has written, greatness in God’s kingdom requires “wholehearted” commitment to God’s ways that goes beyond obedience to the mere letter of the law.
Jesus sets a higher standard for his disciples than for followers of Moses. For example:
There is a problem with being set a high standard, however, isn’t there? Inevitably, we all fall short much of the time. Sin is a reality in all our lives. But the wonderful good news of the Gospel is that we can be forgiven and declared righteous in God’s sight by faith in Christ. By believing in him, Christ’s perfect status is transferred to us. His righteousness is credited to our account. We are forgiven for Christ’s sake. And as we strive for greater righteousness in our actual daily lives, we will be increasingly assisted by the Holy Spirit.
The apostle Paul spells this all out in his letter to the Romans. He explains there that Christians are made righteous by faith in Christ; we are being sanctified by the Holy Spirit; and we are citizens of Heaven by the grace of God.
So what Jesus is saying in verse 20 is this: Christian disciples should pursue a higher standard of righteousness than anyone else, one that even exceeds the standards of the Old Testament law. But we also have a righteous status before God that is given to us as a gift. A gift of free forgiveness that we should take hold of and grasp by faith.
So as I finish, our tricky sentences today have taught us three things:
Of course, we can do none of these things on our own, so let me pray now…
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