Matthew 5:13-20 – Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
The history of the interpretation of salt, light, and city is massive and widely interpreted and there is very little to suggest or dictate what Jesus really meant. But I will go into a few of my thoughts if it helps prime the wheels.
To describe why it’s difficult to know the true meaning, each of these metaphors on their own are awkward for different reasons. Salt doesn’t really lose its saltiness. A city on a mountain as a light is not very practical other than to be seen from far away. You don’t usually keep a lamp/light burning forever and it will need to be extinguished at some point. These few verses don’t fully function as parables. They are more proverbial. Ultimately, holding onto Matthean themes and Matthew’s narrative may be the best help for our understanding.
For example, In the Greek, μωρανθῇ (translated in this text as “lost its taste” or “tasteless”), is not commonly used metaphorically to refer to taste in Greek. Instead, it can mean “to become foolish”. Similarly in Hebrew/Aramaic תפל literally means “to be saltless,” but it can also mean “to speak stupidly” or “to be vapid.” If we hold onto the Matthean prophetic theme, then to be salty means to speak with conviction (which someone proclaiming the kingdom of heaven would need to). To be saltless then would mean to speak without substance and with no challenge. Similarly, a city on a hill is a beacon for those to follow, just as prophet’s words become a focal point for the direction of God’s people. A light shines so that you and others can see and to illuminate that which was in shadow, just as a prophet’s words illuminate the wrongs of this world and how God is calling us to live differently. A bushel would be hiding from the truth and covering up that exposure.
Many commentators connect the language of these verses to the Beatitudes. The disciples are told “you are” salt and light and there is an implication that they are “to be” salt and light. This is the same type of structure as the Beatitudes—they are already blessed, and they will be blessed. The disciples already are salt and light, and they also need to continue to be in their ministry to come. For understanding the structure of these sentences, I believe this connection to the beatitudes is helpful. However, I think these sayings are a beautiful transition to verse 17 as well (the verse that I think is one of the most important in all of Matthew).
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” As I mention in my longer commentary on the Sermon on the Mount (link here), these teachings are not a new law and they do not replace the law. What comes immediately after this is an interpretation of the law (midrash). Jesus here is acknowledging that his teachings are not coming out of nowhere. They come from a long line of teaching and prophetic tradition. Therefore, it makes sense that these Jewish disciples have salt within them already. They have heard the law and prophets. But they will need to continue to be salt for the earth, a light for the world, a beacon to see. Jesus is calling them already into prophetic succession. Continue in the law and the prophets and follow these teachings to be the voice of conviction (salt) and the illuminating presence of God (light) in the world.
Verse 20 and Matthew’s referring to hypocrites in upcoming verses (6:2; 6:5, 6:16) suggest that this salt can lose its saltiness and this light can be covered with a bushel. If someone who has heard the law and the prophets instead turns back to the world or to the powers of the world, then they lose their saltiness (conviction) and hide their light.
But before we become quick to move toward accidental antisemitic tropes and supercessionist interpretations, we need to remember that Jesus is referencing THE law and prophets as the foundation of this teaching. Again, this is not a new law.
Even more than other Gospels, in Matthew, Jesus is commissioning his disciples immediately to do ministry (this is explicit in chapter 10 with the 12 disciples going out with authority). In addition, this is written to Matthew’s own congregation, as they hear these words as a community, to be commissioned immediately as well. And so, the easy continuation of that thought is that we are being commissioned immediately as well as we hear this word together.
We Learn as We Go
As an enneagram five and as an introvert, I hate the idea of entering into anything without feeling thoroughly informed and prepared. But there are sometimes when you just have to jump into the process and learn as you go. My spouse and I were told that our landlords were going to sell the home we were living in, and it was not the home we wanted to buy. With time not on our side, rather than jumping into another rental, we jumped into the house buying scene headfirst. We had to learn as we went: the mortgage process, FHA loans, realtor contracts, inspections, and closing costs. We made some mistakes and had to double-back on a couple of things. We relied on the deep wisdom of our realtor. We relied on the wisdom of the inspector who told us the house we found had good bones. We relied on the wisdom of my father-in-law who walked many different houses with us and saw the cracks behind covered up problems in flipped houses. We learned and relearned as we went. I never felt ready to buy a house. I never felt like I had all the information and some of that is because of the troubles of capitalism, markets, and loans being intentionally difficult to understand. But even though I was not 100% sure of everything, by the end (even though some things could have gone better) we ended up buying a wonderful house that we have now called home in for three years. We learn as we go sometimes.
The disciples have heard the law and are learning new teachings, but even though we have not gotten through most of this Gospel, Jesus is already calling them to be sent out now. We as the church sometimes hold off on discipleship and action because we don’t feel like we are adequately ready or prepared. Pastors and lay leaders will say, “We can’t serve and give outside of ourselves until we solve the problems on the inside.” Congregations in transition will say, “We can’t develop a mission statement until a new pastor is called to tell us our mission.”
We sometimes wait, thinking that we need to know all of things before we can start being disciples. But our example from scripture today is this group that shows up at the mountain. Random folks from all walks of life that have come together in this moment. And it is to them that Jesus is immediately telling, that they ARE salt. They ARE light. And to continue being disciples, they need to follow the law and the prophets now, doing to others as you would have them do to you (7:12).
 Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7, ed. Helmut Koester, trans. James E. Crouch (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 205.
 Luz, 203.
 Luz, 203.
 R. Alan Culpepper, Matthew: A Commentary (Westminster John Knox Press, 2021), 100.