painting of figures seated on the ground

Study Notes – Matthew 5 13-20

We are studying Matthew 5:13-20 for Sunday, July 7. This is the continuation of the Sermon on the Mount we began studying last week – and which we’ll be studying for the rest of the month, through the end of Matthew 5, and then skipping over to sections of chapter 7. In other words, we’ll be meditating on “The Cost of Discipleship” for the next month or so. [Some questions about this text are here.] Here are my notes on this text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We’ll remember that the Sermon on the Mount occurs in Matthew’s gospel, with its characteristic structure of teaching interspersed with action, and its characteristic emphases on wisdom and Jesus’ connections to wisdom, on Jesus’ fulfillment of Jewish scripture and prophecy and tradition, and on Jesus’ relationship to “the lost sheep of the children of Israel.”

We noticed last week, too, that this teaching occurs very early in Matthew’s gospel: right after Jesus calls a handful of disciples (Peter and Andrew, James and John back in chapter 4), and before any healing stories (although Matthew 4:23 reports that Jesus has been on a preaching and healing tour of Galilee, which is what has been generating the “crowds” that are following him around in 5:1).

We probably want to notice that the Sermon on the Mount is a culturally privileged “go to” text for presenting “Jesus’ teachings.” When we – that is, if we are western, or Christian, or both – think of Jesus as a teacher, we are likely to point to the Sermon on the Mount as the paradigm. It’s not a coincidence that there are dozens of book-length treatments of these particular three chapters of the New Testament.

And we probably want to keep noticing that we have been living with this part of scripture our entire lives, if we were raised in the church, and for our whole Christian lives, if we weren’t. We took a poll in class last week and most of us could remember knowing/knowing about the Beatitudes from about the time we learned to read, or maybe a little after. In other words, this is text that’s beyond familiar, it’s constitutive. That makes it challenging in all the ways that a text we think we already know is challenging, only perhaps more so.

We might need background on salt, light, and Pharisees. Salt seems particularly perplexing to me at the moment, but both salt and light are apparently items we experience … very differently from people in the first century.

A quick discussion of facts about salt in the ancient world is part of a sermon on Epiphany 5A here, and the relevant passage from Pliny the Elder’s “Natural History” is here – it’s not too long, and is really interesting. We have pink salt; they had red and purple salt, and liquid salt. One thing seems clear: salt in the ancient world did not come in a tidy blue package, from the bottom shelf at the grocery store (where they keep all the cheap stuff with no profit margin).

Some interesting material on lighting is here – which has the astonishing little note that salt was added to olive oil in lamps in the Roman world to make the oil a little drier, which made it burn brighter. Assuming this is true, it makes Jesus’ juxtaposition of salt and light … that much more intelligible. There is a labeled diagram of a Roman clay lamp, along with photos and an explanation of how they worked here at Science Buzz.

Whatever we think about the Pharisees from going to church all our lives is probably wrong. For one thing, people mostly liked them. [See Lawrence H. Schiffman, “Pharisees,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 2nd edition, Amy-Jill Levine & Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., Oxford University Press, 2017, 622.] When we are thinking about them, we probably just need to think of ourselves, when we are at our most observant.

CLOSER READING: In v13, Jesus says “you” (plural) are (or possibly “be,” as an imperative) “the salt of the earth.” There is a lot of commentary on this, and it mostly involves the properties of salt as a preservative, or as a seasoning, or both.

Salt is supposed to be a metaphor for wit or wisdom according to some. (E.g., see Colossians 4:5-6.) This would make more sense of the next sentence, which uses a verb that most often means “be made foolish,” and which seems to have gotten its meaning of “be made insipid” mainly on the strength of Matthew 5:13 and Luke 14:34. It’s about equally difficult to relate to salt being made foolish and to salt being made tasteless, maybe especially in 2019. According to some commentators, if salt has impurities, the salt itself can leach away and leave the non-salty impurities behind, which may explain that. Certainly, it is silly and laughable to think of salting salt.

Should we wonder why the earth needs salt? Salt is generally a good thing in the Bible, and has to be added to burnt offerings and to incense, which might be significant, but it can also be a really bad thing, especially vis-à-vis the actual earth. There are several Biblical references to salt of this negative kind, aside from Lot’s wife (e.g., Deuteronomy 29:23, Judges 9:45, Jeremiah 17:6) – where salt is associated with uninhabitable places. That doesn’t seem to be what Jesus means here, which may be why no one mentions it, but it seems important to bear in mind that the goodness of salt depends on context.

I feel more and more that I don’t understand this verse, despite all the commentary. What is it about “you-all” that is salty? How does that depend on who “you-all” are, or on what “you-all” do or know, if it does, and are “we” included or not in “you-all”? And how would “you-all” lose their/our saltiness and have no power or ability (literally) for anything except being thrown out to be walked all over? All of this has started to seem a lot less obvious to me.

In v14, “you-all” are the light of the world, which we often think of as more human and cultured than the earth, which may or may not matter here.

There is a sense of “even if you tried” that goes with “a city resting on a hill cannot be hidden.” Perhaps especially in the dark, when people have lit lamps. [This reminds me of a story our 6th grade English teacher told us, about being on a troop transport during WWII, and how they were absolutely not allowed to go up on deck to smoke after dark, because even the glow of a cigarette would be visible for miles.]

Again, like the salt, this light is something desirable, and in v16 is associated with good works. We might want to incorporate “being a good worker” or “being in good working order” into our thinking about “good works” here.

In v17 there’s a play on words, because the word for “don’t suppose” in Greek begins with the same syllable as the word for “law” in “abolish the law and the prophets”.

It might be a good idea for us to notice here that we probably have a different relationship to the idea of abolishing the law and the prophets than Jesus’ audience of “you-all” might have had. I think I [as a Protestant? as a Christian?] often think of annulling the law as a good thing. (We’re so free now from “the law” thanks to “the gospel,” and so on.) So that we tend to read this, I think, as Jesus warning us that he isn’t doing this basically good thing exactly the way we think he is.

But in the first century, people probably did not have that 16th century idea, and Jesus may have been saying to them something more like “I haven’t come to [synonym for ‘wreck everything that matters about our way of life’].” That may change the way we understand these verses.

Instead, Jesus literally says he came to “fill up” the law – one way to read the word translated as “fulfill” here. So we might want to get the image of wind filling up a sail or water filling up a glass or sound filling up a room. Almost as if “the law” hasn’t been living up to its potential until now, like a balloon, before you add the helium.

That may give us a different idea of what it means for “your righteousness to exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees” … less about “which rules do you live by” and more about “how do you live them”?

So that the question about righteousness might become … How delicious is it? How bright and warm and welcoming is it? How alive is it?

painting of Jesus teaching a group of people seated on grass

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: