Epiphany 5A - Matthew 5:13-20

Matthew 5:13–20 (NIV)

13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

          Picture, please, Hamilton Lake (Lake Rotoroa). It's surrounded by a beautiful garden. The lake has a mirror finish on it reflecting the image of the good things around it; the flowering shrubs, the blue sky and soft white clouds.

Here is an image which indicates that all is right with the world. Everything looks good. The surface is smooth and the sky is blue.

          The lives of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, who Jesus refers to in our text, appear like this idyllic setting. On the surface of their lives everything looks great. But what's underneath? What's below the surface? In Lake Rotoroa, under the surface, I’ve seen all kinds of rubbish, stolen shopping trolley’s and algal bloom.

          Jesus frequently challenged the Pharisees and teachers of the law. He called them hypocrites. They stressed the observance of rites and ceremonies and made pretence of being right with God by doing the “right thing publicly”.

Their public piety was like the surface of Lake Rotoroa I described at the beginning of this message. On appearance their lives were good and they were right with God.

          But below the surface lies the junk of life. Just as the reflective surface of the lake can hide blue green algae, so also the Pharisees and teachers of the law were contaminated below the surface of their lives. Their outward actions belied the truth of what was in their hearts.

Our lives can hide a contaminated heart filled with sin, evil thoughts and motives. You often hear of people who were pillars of society who, when their misdeeds are revealed, you are amazed. People who seemed to have had it all together struggled with the same things we struggle with – it was just that they hid it well.

          Jesus says to us that not only must our outward actions and appearance be right with God - not only must we obey the law and will of God - but we must have a pure heart.

          In today's Gospel lesson Jesus says that we are to be like salt in the world and that we must shine like a light for all to see.

          When Jesus said this He was addressing the Apostles directly – this text, which applies to all of Jesus’ followers, is particularly addressed to those called by God to teach the faith – so pastors, teachers, parents and grandparents are in the spotlight here with Jesus.

Luther says:

“We must be well armed …, therefore, and look at nothing but the commandment of Christ. He entrusts this ministry (that is, being salt and light) to us and wants us to open our mouths vigorously, to denounce what must be denounced, heedless of our own danger, inconvenience, advantage, or pleasure, and of other people’s malice and contempt. Our consolation is in the fact that He makes us His salt and will sustain us in our salting. He commands us to do that salting with good cheer, regardless of whether the world refuses to tolerate it and persecutes us. Nor should we despair, even though it seems to us that we are getting nowhere. Our pleasure and satisfaction should be whatever He commands us to do. Let Him determine what and how much He wants to accomplish through us. If people refuse to hear or accept it, we are salt nonetheless and have discharged our responsibility. Then we can stand before the judgment seat of God honourably and cheerfully. We can testify that we have spoken out faithfully to every man and have hidden nothing under the bench, leaving them without the excuse that they did not know any better or had not been told.” (LW21:58).

As you are aware, too much salt burns and spoils, so we must judiciously and wisely use God’s Word to teach and encourage one another in our daily living, letting the light of Christ shine through what we think, say and do.

In next Sunday’s Gospel lesson we will hear how Jesus summarises some aspects of what it means to have a pure heart – the practicalities of being salt and light – living in the righteousness of Christ.

It’s not about earning the righteousness but reflecting the righteousness of Christ in our lives – it helps if the lens of our lives are clean – hence we are reminded of the cleansing of Baptism, confession and absolution and the help and strength God gives in Holy Communion for holy living.

These are some of the things we are to teach about being righteous. He tells us that even an angry thought against our brother or sister is like murdering him or her. How can a murderer enter the Kingdom of Heaven?

          Jesus says that even thinking about using the body of another person to satisfy oneself is the same as committing adultery. The illicit action may not have been physically committed but in the heart is has been.

          Jesus also says that our speech should always be truthful. There should be honour in our word. To not speak openly and honestly is sin. It comes from the devil. There is no place for deception - we should be up front in all we say. Satan is the father of all lies and we shouldn't follow in the footsteps of the deceiver as He leads us away from the Kingdom of Heaven.

          So the salt may burn a bit – but the light heals.

          Our Lord Jesus gives us examples of commonly committed sins in order to teach us what it is to live righteous lives. Righteousness is not merely how we appear to each other - you know - creating a good impression, keeping up appearances - it's more than having a good reputation in the world.

Jesus says that our righteousness, our doing the right thing, is extended to how and what we think - it extends to our very heart and soul.

          Now, God knows what's below the surface in our hearts. He knows our thoughts. He looks beyond our actions He looks to our motivation - to our very heart.

God knows when we harbour anger and bitterness towards each other. He knows when we desire what is not rightfully ours. He knows that our actions may cause others to sin and that the "little white lie" to slip out.

          God knows what we're really like. That's why he looks at us, His people, through Jesus. Jesus filters out the contamination of sin in our hearts when He gives us His righteousness won for us on the cross.

This divine righteousness allows us to enter the Kingdom of Heaven - to live with Him forever. God makes what's in Jesus heart ours. He gives us His Spirit to change us from being merely a glassy mirror-like surface to being pure through and through.

          The righteousness of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, that outward appearance, is not enough for God. We need the righteousness of Jesus: the pure heart, freedom from the power of sin and power to live in the light of Christ.

This righteousness is given to us in our Baptism and is worked in us by God's Holy Spirit. With Jesus' righteousness the surface will not belie and hide the heart but reflect the goodness that is within - the goodness of God received from Jesus.