Today, we know salt to be the first thing you put on your food to season it, and it is often accompanied by its counterpart: pepper. But Jesus calls his disciples, his followers, and the people gathered on the mountainside to preach, salt. Why would he say that?
Salt has been used at least since 6000 BC. Salt was so important that it was sometimes used as a medium of exchange, a kind of currency. (Our word "salary" is derived from "salt.") If someone traded salt for a poorly-performing slave, one might say the slave was "not worth his salt."
Some commentators will tell you that salt never loses its taste, but that is not quite true. The chemical impurities of salt from the Dead Sea, the likely source for most salt in Galilee where Jesus spent most of his ministry, could cause it to decompose and, indeed, "lose its taste" (5:13).
Jesus does not, you'll notice, state this in future tense. It's not that the followers of Jesus will some day become the "salt of the land." They are already that right now. So what they say and do are are important. They matter. Like salt, the followers of Jesus do not necessarily draw attention to themselves so much as they "flavor" everything around them.
Jesus also tells those gathered to hear him: "You are the light of the world." Matthew had previously cited the prophet Isaiah to say that "the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light" (4:16). While that statement pointed to Jesus, this one refers to those who would follow him.
His mission is now their mission. His words and deeds are their words and deeds. Jesus has not yet gone into detail about the specifics of this mission, but the Sermon on the Mount (which goes from here until 7:28) will have ample opportunity to say what it is.
This mission is public--it happens in the open, like a city set on a hill--and it benefits everyone. Even its candlelight "beams brightly" to all in a house. In fact, the only thing that can really mess it up is the active attempt to snuff it out. Or, to put it a different way, the light can be extinguished only by ignoring the needs of others for "light" and insisting on one's own preference that everyone sit in the dark.
In the time of Jesus, and before, the Torah was sometimes seen as "salt" for Israel. Also, the rabbis and religious authorities were, themselves, sometimes referred to as the "lights" of Israel. Now, Matthew tells us, through Jesus' sermon, that the followers of Jesus are "the salt of the earth" and "the light of the world." For the Torah-minded Matthew, this is a stunning statement.
You are the salt of the earth, so don't lose your taste. You are the light of the world, so don't hide. God has created each and every one of us, not to grow stale or be hidden, but to be known, to be loved, to be shared with the world. The world knows God because it knows the people of God. They will know God through people courageous enough to show themselves, and all their love, to them.
And the world needs you. Desperately. The world needs to know God's love. So add your flavor to it; shine your light in it.
There is no part of life
you do not touch, O God,
infusing your rich fragrance— gritty and real—
getting in underneath the surface,
drawing out and lifting up winding love around
until defenses are lowered, barriers broken down
and the power of your love reveals the beauty
you intended for all your children.
May our actions draw attention to you,
to the richness you bring to all life
and the abundance you share,
setting the scene for us to share too.
Help us to bring light
into all the darkness of life, spreading hope for a better world,
a world where justice is made real by your children living together
Help us to bring salt
into the blandness of life,
encouraging vitality and joy in living
in a world that dares to hope
for the future that you promise
where all your children will know themselves
loved and valued
created in your image,
bringing you glory forever.
(Thank you, and credit to, Rev Liz Crumlish of the Church of Scotland, for this prayer)