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Salt and Light

Epiphany V - February 5, 2023

Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.

St. Columba's Episcopal Church

Is. 58:1-9a (9b-12) + Ps. 112:1-9 (10) + 1 Cor 2:1-12 (13-16) + Mt 5:13-20

Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I speak to you today in the name of the + Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.

Little sense can be made of Matthew’s gospel if one fails to appreciate his efforts to demonstrate the continuity between Moses and Jesus, Israel and the Church, Judaism and Christianity. As we explored over Christmastide, Matthew’s opening genealogy traces the history of Israel as if under the providential hand of God, in a predictable series of 14 generations, all of which lead inevitably to her long-awaited Messiah: Emmanuel, God with us.

Furthering his theological agenda to demonstrate this historical and theological continuity, Matthew casts the very life of Jesus in parallel with the life of Moses: Both are born of Jewish parents, both of their lives are sought after by a tyrannical king: both narrowly (and miraculously!) escape being slaughtered by their respective kings even as many other children are killed; both pass through water (Moses, through the Sea of Reads; and Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan River). Both are then tempted in the desert, and both ascend a mountain from which they deliver divine instruction to their people (Moses – The Ten Commandments; Jesus – the Sermon on the Mount).

It is against this background, and many other parallels like it, that we must understand Jesus’ teaching in the gospel today:

5:17 "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 5:18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.

The creative tension we intuit throughout Matthew’s gospel is one born of his desire to balance continuity and novelty. He is keen to show that Jesus is at once a discernible continuation of God’s revelation to Israel, even as Christ marks an entirely novel revelation: Awaited but completely unexpected; Hoped-for, but surpassing all expectations.

If Jesus’ teachings seem like a contradiction to that of Moses, Matthew says, “look deeper.” If the Gospel appears incongruous with Torah, Matthew urges, “read more carefully.” If it appears Jesus has come to abolish the law, Matthew argues, “No, not to abolish but to fulfill the law” – but to bring about a fulfillment born of Love.

The election of Israel as salt of the Earth, a light on the hill, is not taken from her, but is now shared with the nations, the gentiles – as much as a gift to all people as it is a responsibility. And thus, in the gospel today, Jesus demands:

“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 5:20)

Given the focus of the gospels on the life and teachings of Jesus, a Christian who knows little about first century Palestinian Judaism could easily come away with the impression that Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes where always (and exclusively arguing with Jesus). But in fact, each of these sects within Judaism were just as often arguing with one another about the meaning of the Law, the role of the Temple, how to keep the Sabbath, the existence of angels, life-after-death, and just about everything else. By no means was there a unified or homogeneous opposition of Jews against Jesus, or vice-versa. His was one voice among many debating, arguing, teaching, and chastising his opponents. Indeed, many such Pharisees, whom Jesus calls out in the gospel today, played significant roles in support of Jesus and the early church, including Nicodemus (Jn. 3:1; 7:50, 51; 19:39), Gamaliel (Acts 5:34-40), Joseph of Arimathea (Mt. 27:57; Mk. 15:43; Lk 23:50; Jn. 19:38), and of course St. Paul – among Christianity’s greatest proponents (Phil. 3:5).

As fate would have it, the Pharisees (who would evolve into the rabbis of modern Judaism) were the only Jewish sect, other than Christianity, to survive the War with Rome, which spanned 66-73 AD. The aristocratic Sadducees, whose raison d'être was the Temple, faded into non-existence with its destruction in the year 70. The bellicose Zealots were annihilated by Rome at their final stronghold in Masada in the year 73. And the apocalyptic, separatist Essenes who were awaiting the reformation of the Temple ultimately disappeared from history by the end of the 1st century (but for their cache of sacred texts discovered in the mid-20th century, known to us as the Dead Sea Scrolls).

Having been composed in the mid-to-late 70’s, Matthew is writing in the aftermath of this war between Judea and its Roman occupiers, trying to help Jewish-Christians understand what it means to be a disciple of Christ in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple. In its place he is forging, as it were, a novel sense of community, not centered around the Temple, but around discipleship. And the stakes seem impossibly high!

“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

This is not a slight to the Pharisees (as many often assume)! Jesus is not teaching “There is no righteousness among the Pharisees.” To the contrary, Jesus is acknowledging their notoriously high bar for being “righteous” and yet demanding this new community of disciples surpass even that bar. It’s like him saying, “You see that Olympic swimmer over there? To be my disciple you must swim faster.” And in doing so he is clearly asking for the impossible. He is demanding an ethic, a fulfillment of the Law in radical love of neighbor that, in fact, no one individual can live up to. He is demanding that we be a new community, constituted not by the Temple (now gone), not by a shared ethnicity (now dispersed), not by a specific city (now long occupied by foreign powers).

Rather, this new community is to be forged in the impossible demand to love perfectly, precisely that we might realize our unremitting dependence on God and one another to do so. It is a new community not forged in ethnic identities but in voluntary association.

And at the heart of all this is one necessary ingredient: that the church be visible. That is to say, we must be salt, indeed we must be light for the world. This is the summons to be visible, to let the world taste and see the goodness of the Lord in the very way we give witness to the gospel in our bodies, in our words, and in our actions!

We are summoned to witness to Christ as much in our desire to love, as in our failure to love perfectly – a failure which by grace, opens our hearts to the necessity, indeed the celebration of God’s mercy for us. Such an individual failure opens us to the need for the Beloved Community – to hold us, carry us, heal us from our imperfections. A community, not in which no sin abounds, but in which through mercy, humility, kindness, forgiveness, grace does abound the more.

Indeed, the impossibly high stakes of the Sermon on the Mount sets each of us up for radical failure, a failure by which the real basis for Christian discipleship is forged: the recognition of our utter dependency on grace, which unwittingly opens the way for us to embody, for all the world, the joy of Christ’s reconciling love.

Thus, we become salt and light not by achieving spiritual perfection, but through the humility born of loving others when they don’t – not because we are perfect ourselves but because we know the healing balm of God’s forgiveness in our own imperfection. This is what Christ means when he says in the gospel today, “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill the law.” It is Christ who fulfills it, not us. Indeed, the word “to fulfill” (in Greek πληρῶσαι) used here evokes the idea of making something bear the fruit it had always intended.

Thus, he is making the audacious claim that the relationship between himself and Torah is not one of servant to Master, but of God to his own word. And thus, Christ makes clear, he is not – indeed could not –invalidate his own word, but rather has come to bring to fruition what has always been its deepest intention: Not the letter but the Spirit. Not legalism, but love. Not perfection, but mercy.

Living, as we do, in the most secular bubble in the United States, many of you have shared with me moments of shyness, even the embarrassment of being judged by those who are incredulous over the fact that you have joined a Christian community. Anything but that! But even as Christian churches shrink and decline, this moment in history marks an opportunity the church has not seen since before the conversion of the Roman Empire under Constantine. Before the church became an arm of the state, before it was so easily accommodated to an ancient empire, no less than to modern ideologies rooted not in the gospel but in various forms of patriotism or nationalism.

Before the church was politicized it took exceptional conviction to be Christian. A conviction which was, by its very nature, visible. Members belonged to the church because they were converted. After Constantine, it became harder to discern an authentic commitment to the gospel from among the nominally Christian masses. As a result, we have lost sight of the radicalism of Christian discipleship and its visible expression as salt and light, as kindness and reconciliation, as love and justice in the world.

But it is precisely in this new context of so-called “decline” of Christianity that the gospel today speaks with new vigor and power. We, this new audience hearing to Jesus’ sermon on this new day, hear him not in the wake of the destruction of the Temple, but in the collapse of socially instituted Christianity. If Jesus came to fulfill the Law of Judaism, he certainly did not intend to replace it with a legalized form of Christianity. If Jewish ethnicity could no longer be taken for granted among those counted as the “elect” neither today can church membership be taken for granted among those counted among Christ’s disciples.

The question for us then is clear: when everything else falls away, what will as yet be visible? When we are found standing in the rubble of institutional Christianity, what will we bring forward from the store room of our tradition? If it is not that which makes us salt, that which makes us light. It’s not worth holding on to.

+ Father, Son and Holy Spirit.


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