By Rev. Julian Duckworth
You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt loses its taste how shall it be seasoned?
You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. (Matthew 5:13-14)
Angels and spirits are inwardly affected by the Lord’s light according to the life of love and charity that is in them. It is not a person’s face but the affection shining out from it that stirs the feelings in another person, and in the case of those who love good it is the affection for good seen in a person’s face that stirs them. (Arcana Caelestia 2231 and 3080)
It suddenly struck me the other day that one of the very first things the Lord brings to our attention is how important we are to Him in His purposes, each one of us, or if you like, the part that we may be able to play in the overall scheme of things. Right at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, just after the Beatitudes, the Lord addresses us quite challengingly. You … You are the salt of the earth. You … You are the light of the world. What … Me? Yes … You! And that is quite a provocative idea. It’s as if the Lord is saying that He needs each one of us to be like a beacon through which the essential things of life are reflected out, shown to be important, lived up to, and kept going here in this world. It immediately reminded me of two comments I had. One was from a passer-by at a Mind Body Spirit Festival in London where we had a stand. A young man came past and looked up at the stand title and then at the display of literature and then he came over to me and said without any hesitation, So what does all this do for you personally? And he hung on my reply which both terrified me and thrilled me to summon up on the spot. The other comment was from a lady who came along with her children to our church in Birmingham. We were discussing along the lines of how much we really believe what we say we believe in. And she said to me, “You obviously believe what you say. When you talk on Sundays, we can tell how much it means to you.” And I said, “Well, thankyou. But suppose … suppose I didn’t believe it. Suppose I lost my faith. Suppose it was only just words.” And she said, “Oh, we’d know the difference straight away. We’d be able to tell.”
These words of Jesus on being the salt of the earth and the light of the world take things a bit further than we are often used to. We think of the Lord as the Light of the World of course, and we tend to think of ourselves as being on the receiving end of what the Lord does. But perhaps this is rather incomplete and not enough. We certainly are receivers and the Lord is managing and arranging our spiritual state all the time, monitoring how much we can understand of spiritual things, linking them with actual situations we’re involved in, keeping things back from us, reminding us of other things, encouraging us, and always looking towards our eventual spiritual state. All that is going on all the time between the Lord and ourselves. But it’s only one part of the whole process. All that could happen just as much if we were the only person in the world and no one else existed. It’s like the young couple who fall passionately in love, looking so longingly into each others’ eyes, and for a time they feel they only exist for each other, mutually exclusive of any other requirement. But while it’s wonderful for a while, it can’t last because they are shutting out the world and missing out on what each of them can bring from outside into their relationship.
So we are to go beyond a private one-to-one relationship with the Lord and begin to appreciate that this privilege of having a relationship with the Lord, while wonderful, carries other considerations and has a follow-on. We are to move on from just receiving to channeling it out. Think about heaven itself for a moment. Heaven is where we are going to be one day, but the very essence of heaven is not to do with a place but with a way of life. Heaven equals Others. Heaven is living for the sake of others. Not in the sense of being a do-gooder or taking on more and more, because that certainly is not heaven and doesn’t feel like heaven either. But if you live for the sake of others you simply take part and offer yourself as part of something which is endlessly improving and increasing in quality because everybody is contributing to it. If you can think of your own existence or the fact that you exist at all along those lines, you are touching something very very important. I do not primarily live to become something, be someone, feel happy, or do anything. No, I exist and have been brought into existence to take my part in the overall scheme of things and contribute to its welfare. There is no other reason. And if I think there is, am I spoiling the plan and thwarting what the Lord intends? And creating the beginning of a hell.
We touched on this a bit at the Angel service yesterday and one of the people there said something which struck a big chord with me, from actual experience. She said that you can be involved in doing something and put a lot of work into doing it and at the end feel incredibly fresh. It hasn’t tired you out at all; rather the opposite in fact. Why can it be amazingly like this, when most of our efforts tend to take things out of us and leave us feeling we need to rest and recover? The only reason can be that it was done for its own sake, and nothing else was expected from it. If I put that in more spiritual terms, I would say that the Lord was able to infill the activity (and us too) with His own energy and life and so nothing was used up in doing it, no matter how much we put into doing it.
Let’s go back to the Lord’s words again and look at them closely. He said, You are the salt of the earth and you are the light of the world. And He goes on in each case to introduce a bit of a negative element. The salt may lose its taste. A lamp could be put under a basket. And in either case it would not be doing the job for which it exists. And perhaps the Lord added these negatives to point out that we can sometimes be like that and lose our effectiveness in being part of His purposes. We can run down and we can go into hiding. We can do that if we choose, but salt and light themselves do not do that. You are the salt of the earth, Jesus says, but if the salt loses its taste …. But salt can’t lose its taste! Salt is salt! If you left it alone for a hundred years, it would not change its basic nature. So what does the Lord mean by salt losing its taste? Has he chosen an inappropriate metaphor? No. It isn’t the structure and chemistry of salt that He is talking about; it’s the use that salt has that can vary or lessen. You put salt in and on your food to bring out the flavour of the food you are cooking and eating. You don’t want to taste the salt of course – that’s unpleasant – but without salt the food is too bland. With just the right amount of salt, the food is delicious, and you don’t notice why … you just enjoy it all the more. So salt then becomes an ingredient in something else. Now we can begin to understand what the Lord is saying when He calls us the salt of the earth. If salt has this remarkable ability to give of itself for the improvement of something else (without being noticed or taking over), then we also are able to give of ourselves for the improvement of others, of something more than myself. Without being noticed or taking over! Just being in it. It is only when salt is alone that it loses itself and is good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. I will leave you to make the obvious connections with that!
Then Jesus says, You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. I think the Lord is talking about something else now. If salt is the way in which we can help affect the world around us, light is what the world around us sees coming from us and takes notice of. It’s like the other way round to the same idea. The whole point of light is to be broadcast and if it is covered up there just isn’t any light. It’s as if the light never was. So men do not light a lamp and put it under a basket but on a lamp stand so that it will give its light.
Let me put this in a more meaningful way. Think about some of the things you believe, perhaps some of the spiritual ideas that have always been important to you. As you check through these, for many of them, you will find yourself connecting the idea with an actual person, perhaps your parents, a close friend, or a great teacher, or a former church minister, or whoever it is. This association is rather lovely; it gives a human face to our abstract ideas. But the point is that we got the impact of the idea from someone who gave it to us from their own conviction. They were, for that moment, the light of our world and we lit up inside. And as with the salt, they didn’t set out to give us what we got, but they gave us this lasting ever-grateful connection because a city – their city set on a hill – cannot be hidden from view. We do not realize (thank goodness) what we are giving to each other!
And Jesus ends these sayings with one of the best verses in the Bible – Matthew 5.16. Listen to it, turn it over in your mind, and see it in terms of what you can be part of in the Divine scheme of things. Let … Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. And we can be content to just do that.