A Faithful Tension: Thoughts on Matthew 5:13-20

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Image by falco from Pixabay.

In some Puritan churches a man would walk around the worship space with a long pole. On one end of the pole was a feather, to tickle the chins of anyone who fell asleep during the sermon. On the other end of the pole was a hard wooden knob to bop children who were giggling or otherwise causing problems.

The Puritans, it turns out, had all kinds of rules people were expected to follow. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day, you may have heard, had a pretty extensive list of rules as well. There was the Torah—the Jewish law laid out in what we now have as the first five books of the Bible. All Jewish people tried to follow Torah. But Pharisees also tried to follow the “oral law”—instructions given to Moses on Mt. Saini that didn’t exactly make it into writing, but that they needed to follow anyway. So, lots of rules.

And during Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were in the midst of a significant transition. They had been something of an activist group, highly political in their engagement with the world. But during Jesus’ day, they began to turn inward, to focus more on personal piety and less on political engagement.

When Jesus says, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees,

you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” I wonder if his statement is, in part, a critique of the increasingly privatized version of religion being promoted among the Pharisees.

When I met Tracy Kemme at a writing workshop four years ago, she was serving a parish that included many immigrant families—mostly from Central and South America. In a recent article, I learned that two years ago she was arrested in Washington D.C. while protesting in support of DACA recipients. Her social media posts asked people to pray for her and to call their representatives.

It seems that this is a constant religious tension and negotiation—personal piety vs. faithful worldly engagement. And I wonder if it’s not at the heart of what Jesus is trying to teach here:

Salt is not much good sitting by itself. It is used to season or preserve other foods. We are salt of the earth, not salt sitting alone in a cabinet.

And light is useful for illuminating other things; it lets us see and interact with the things—and people—that surround us. We are the light of the world, not the light of an altar candle in an empty sanctuary. There is—there must be, Jesus says–a public element to our faith. A solely personal piety is “no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

Here, towards the beginning of Jesus’ most famous sermon, he is warning us of the dangers of a too-personal faith. He is pushing us to consider how our faith impacts the world.

How are we salt? How do we enliven and protect people around us?

How are we light? How do people see God in our lives? How do we help reveal truth?

It would be easy to take Jesus’ teaching here and run with it—run as far away from rule-following and personal piety as possible. Which is probably why right after telling his followers that they are the light of the world, Jesus says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

Jesus is not letting us off the hook. He is not saying that our personal spiritual lives don’t matter. That our daily life choices are of no consequence. That we don’t have to follow any rules at all.

We are still called to worship and prayer; to kindness and charity; to follow all of the commandments—as best as we can understand them in light of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus doesn’t say that our righteousness should disdain that of the scribes and the Pharisees, but that our righteousness should exceed theirs. We should do more, not less.

Which sounds exhausting.

Except that, in a life of faith—like that of my friend Tracy—both aspects inform and energize each other. Her hours of worship and prayer prepared her for her protest action and her arrest. Our prayer and worship and scripture study and other personal disciplines feed our desire—and our ability—to address pain and injustice in the world. Our involvement with the world, as salt and light, sends us running back to God for peace, for comfort, for direction—and, sometimes, in gratitude.


*This reflection is excerpted from a longer sermon on the same passage.

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