EPIPHANY V - A - 17 MATTHEW 5. 13-20
Today’s gospel is a continuation of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. You may recall Christ opened his teaching last week with the “beatitudes” or “blessings” which constitute the criteria for kingdom living. His point being that those who choose to follow him must learn to live by this rule here and now. The reward is in heaven, Jesus promised, but the vocation is here.
Today’s teaching is a “gateway” we might say to the main theme that will follow: Jesus has come to fulfill the law and the prophets. But first he speaks to God’s people, Israel. He reminds them of their God-given vocation to be salt and light to the world. His reminder is both a warning and a challenge.
Salt was essential to life during the time of Jesus. It preserved, added flavor, and was used in the Temple sacrifices. But Israel was behaving like everybody else. How could God keep the world from going bad, the main function of salt in the ancient world, if Israel, God’s chosen salt, had lost its distinctive taste?
In the same way God called Israel to be the light of the world (Is. 42.6; 49.6). Israel was the people through whom God intended to shine His bright light into the world’s dark corners, not simply to show up evil, but to enable those stumbling around in the dark to find their way. But what if the people called to be light-bearers had become part of the darkness? That was Jesus’ warning and also his challenge.
After presenting his warning and challenge to Israel to renew its vocation and to invite all who will listen to become part of that vocation, Jesus now focuses his teaching on the law of Moses, that is, the commandments of God.
And I am sure he startled his audience when he said he had come to fulfill not only the law but the prophets. What could he possibly mean?
Can’t you just hear some of those in the crowd saying, ‘well here is another new teacher who thinks he has the answer. We have already got teachers of the law. What’s different about this man?’ The Pharisees and scribes did indeed teach a way of being faithful to God, a way of behaving in accordance with God’s covenant.
But theirs was an outward works based righteousness carried out without much effort spiritually or morally. The righteousness of salvation, which Jesus came to teach, is the communion of heart, soul, body and mind that manifests itself in Love of God, his commandments, ordinances and precepts.
Jesus’ words about his having come to fulfill the law is more than a role laid down for him in the words and predictions of the prophets. It is rather a declaration that both the purpose of God disclosed through the prophets and the demands of God that people obey Him have found their fulfillment in Jesus.
In Jesus the whole story, commandments, prophecies, promises and all, was going to come true in him. Jesus fulfills the law in himself by his words and actions. He fulfills the prophets by both being and carrying out what they foretold.
But he did not come to abolish either of them. On the contrary, he is explicit in his teaching that not one “iota,” the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet, or one “tittle,” the smallest stroke in certain Hebrew letters is to pass from the law until all is accomplished. They are to endure until the end of the age.
The reward for those who teach and keep the law will be great, Jesus says, and will come in the new age. By the same token, Christ warns those who break them, and lead other astray by doing so, will be the least in the kingdom of heaven.
In this portion of his teaching, Jesus is presenting a new way for Israel and the world to make God’s covenant a reality in their own selves, changing behavior not just by teaching but by a change of heart and mind. This new reality results in an inner transformation that shows forth in how we relate to God, the world and to our neighbor.
Jesus brought it all to reality in himself. He was the salt of the earth. He was the light of the world set high on a hill top, crucified for all the world to see, becoming a beacon of hope, and new life for all people, embodying the way of self-giving love which is the deepest fulfillment of the law and the prophets.
Jesus fulfilled the law by showing that religion in its essence was a different thing from law. In his fulfillment of the law Jesus distinguished between the moral and the ceremonial and at the same time summarized the moral law in two great commandments: love of God, and love of neighbor.
That’s why these sayings, which originally applied to Israel, now apply to all those who choose to follow Jesus and draw on his life as the source of their own. The warning and challenge Jesus initially gave to Israel now belongs to the Church.
Salt and light illustrate the role of the disciple in society. We are to preserve God’s law not by just teaching it, but living it. We are to be light-bearers in the dark corners of the world, not by calling attention to ourselves, but by proclaiming the light of the gospel that gives knowledge of God.
When the Church discharges its light-giving role, men give glory, not to the church, but to God.
Our vocation is to accept Jesus’ challenge to be “salt” that preserves God’s law until the end of the age and “light,” that through our good works, points beyond ourselves to give God the Glory with a zeal that exceeds that of the Pharisees and scribes. AMEN+