A friend of mine recently messaged me via Facebook asking me and several others about the Beatitudes and, contextually, what Jesus was doing with putting references about “salt” and “light” in with that part of the Sermon on the Mount. I gave an answer that was kind of off the cuff at the time but I’ve had some time to ponder a few things about it since then.
Briefly, I’d like to mention the context of the Beatitudes because, without it, the rest of what I have to say may make no sense. The values and ideas put out in the Beatitudes are upside-down and backwards to the way we like to think. To get things done, we need to exert ourselves. We need to be strong and bold. We need to exude a sense of reassurance and confidence. Hope should characterize our lives. When it comes to right and wrong, we need to make sure we boldly proclaim what is right and vigorously condemn what is wrong. We have our doctrines and theologies down pat and we are certain that we are in the right.
And yet, the Beatitudes praise such things as “mourning”, “poor in spirit”, “meekness”, etc., where people who exhibit these qualities are the ones with the deep abiding joy of life. So, when it comes to being a disciple of Jesus, someone who follows Jesus, it’s not the strong, bold, reassured, “happy”, and confident people who are the best examples of that discipleship but, in fact, the complete opposite because it is in those small, meek, poor, mournful, and hungering ways that we show what it means to “walk humbly with our God”. This is not to say that there’s something particularly wrong with having hope and such. But as you read through the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is teaching his followers that, to be his disciples, what we should exhibit as our character should be on the smaller side of things. Turn the other cheek, give your cloak, walk the extra mile, don’t aim for big money and such, love your enemies, pray in quiet, don’t stress and worry, don’t condemn and judge, etc., are a different way of living than the powerful ways of the Romans, the Pharisees, and the other privileged groups of society.
So, with that perspective, let’s look at salt, light, mustard, and yeast.
“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.” Matthew 5:13
In the first century in the Middle East, salt was used both as a flavoring as well as a preservative. I’ve seen Bible commentaries talk about both when it comes to the characteristics of salt that Jesus is referring to. I think they both apply, really. Even if the salt is used as a preservative, you know that your meat has been preserved in salt because it tastes like it. And, if the meat has NOT been preserved by salt…well, you’ll know pretty quickly as well. Eeeewww.
In any case, one of the things about salt, both as a preservative as well as a flavoring is that, if you’ve got a great big chunk of salt, it doesn’t work well for either purpose. You put a great big lump of salt on a slab of meat and you’ve got pretty much a paper weight being used to keep your meat from blowing away. See, for either purpose, salt needs to be broken down into tiny little bits and then spread all around. Either you rub those little bits all over the meat, or pack the meat in a whole bunch of little bits, or stick the meat in water that has had the little bits mixed in, but any way you do it, the salt has to be little bits before it will do any good (well… I guess you could drop the lump in the water, but it’s a lot easier to dissolve little bits than it is to dissolve big lumps).
Another thing about salt is that salt really doesn’t have to do much to be salty. It just is salty. It’s what makes it salt. It’s not like you have to wave a magic wand over it or perform some silly dance to make it salty. And the salt itself… well, it’s salt. It can’t do ANYTHING except just be salt. If it stops being salt… well, it’s not salt any more. It has become, at that point, just nasty gritty rock mixed in with your meat. Eeewww.
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 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. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”Matthew 5:14-16
One thing about light is that light doesn’t do any good if it’s hidden away. It needs to be out in the open, like a city on a hill. It’s kinda hard to drive up to a city that’s up on a hill and not see it. Not that we, in the modern society understand this much as our cities aren’t built on hills for defense like they were back then. Perhaps if we look more at the pictures of castles and such in Europe we’d have a better idea. You look up the mountain and BAM, there’s a castle. Hard to miss. Light is like that in order to be useful. It’s gotta be out in the open, even set up on a stand, for it to do any good.
If you think about it, if you have a table lamp in your living room (like I do) that has a 40 Watt bulb in it, the light it gives off is MUCH dimmer than the same 40 Watt bulb in the overhead lighting fixture. Something about taking the light up in the air like that makes it SO much better to see with. Lamps in the first century weren’t much different. If you really want to light up a room, you put your oil lamp up on a stand. Sitting on the floor, it didn’t do much, you needed to put it up hight somewhere.
But the other thing about light is its relationship to darkness. You see, where there is light, there is no darkness. It’s not like the light has to do anything special. By its very presence, light “drives out darkness”. But probably even more profound than that is to understand that darkness is nothing more than the absence of light. If there is light, there is no dark. Period. It’s not like it swirls its cloak and says, “Curses! Foiled again! But I’ll be back!” If you turn on a light, the light fills up the dark spaces getting rid of the dark spaces. Turn off the light and it’s just a matter of there not BEING any light that makes it dark. If there is light, there is no dark.
He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.” Matthew 13:33
All my baker friends understand this parable pretty well. Those of us who spend our times in dusty books pondering Greek words and cultural relevance sometimes miss this. So, let me explain it.
When it comes to baking bread, a little bit of yeast goes a long way. A quick research of a white bread recipe says that it takes one and a half tablespoons of yeast for six cups of flour (not to mention water, oil, salt, and sugar). To put it into perspective, a simple conversion says that it takes 16 tablespoons of something to make a cup of that something. So, that six cups of flour is 96 tablespoons. Which means that, when it comes to ratio, the yeast makes up less than 2% of the entire recipe. And yet, if you leave out that little bit of yeast, what comes out of your oven is pretty nasty. I mean, pretty much, you’ve got a brick. And it chews about the same, too.
Beyond the ratio, yeast is “worked all through the dough”. You don’t just drop the lump of yeast in your flour and stuff. You have to spread it all through. That little bit gets worked through it all and it works its wonderful yeasty magic (yeah, I know the science behind it all…work with me here) on the rest of the ingredients. And then, when folks walk into the house and smell the bread baking… ’nuff said. Once that yeast is worked through it all, it makes something so yummy that people swoon just to smell it.
Seed to Tree
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” Matthew 13:31-32
I’ll say this: I haven’t seen a mustard tree. Ever. Not sure they really grow into trees. But when it comes to a herb garden, you know where the mustard is planted. Those yellow plants do get rather tall. And it you go out into the countryside and look at some meadows, you can see the mustard plants. They are those tall, yellow things that wave in the breeze. They are actually taller than the grasses around them. So, while mustard doesn’t really grow into a tree as we know it, it certainly gets pretty big. And in that countryside, occasionally, you’ll see sparrows, red-winged blackbirds, starlings, wrens, etc., roosting in the mustard. It gives a nice little perch and allows them to see all around and notice the danger of that kitty-cat stalking through the tall weeds. Look out, birdie! Fly away!
Ahem. Anyways, if you go to your kitchen and look for your mustard seeds, you’ll find they are pretty tiny. This parable could probably have been told using dill weed as well. Or celery. Or any number of herbs. They have such tiny little seeds and become these amazingly tall plants that provide shelter and food and nesting material for all sorts of little creatures.
So, what’s my point? If you notice, these parables of Jesus when he describes the Kingdom of God, he doesn’t talk about massive movements of people, huge armies, bold proclamations, or that sense of PRESENCE you get when you walk down the hallways of the capital building in Washington, D.C.. When Jesus talks about his disciples, the Kingdom that they make up, and the characteristics of them, he goes for the small, the meek, the unobtrusive. These things, salt, light, seed, and yeast, we sometimes don’t even pay attention to. We don’t have any realization that they are even present or doing their thing and yet we distinctly notice it when they are gone. The soup doesn’t quite taste right without the salt. It’s hard to see to get to the bathroom at night without light. Ever try to harvest peas after the rain has washed away all your seeds? And as for yeast, well, without yeast, you have crackers and it’s hard to make a PB&J sandwich for lunch with nothing but saltines (OK, so it can be done, but it’s not quite as satisfying).
Let me break it down.
Like salt, we simply have to be present. Our very nature is what is needed in our neighborhoods. If we are acting like the followers of Jesus, just like salt, our presence will be felt.
Like light, where we are, there is no darkness. Our presence fills the darkness and brings to light those things that need to be seen. When the world looks at us and compares what it sees to everything else, it’s very easy to see what is dark and what is light, what is good and what is bad.
Like yeast, we may be small, but we are worked into everything. We’re in schools, jobs, government, families, private charities, public coffee houses, restaurants, libraries, prisons, courthouses, etc. There may not be many of us, but our presence is certainly felt and makes a big difference in the way things happen.
Like seeds, we grow. We turn into something, in our growth, that people seek out. People will come to us for shelter, for protection, for comfort. We will provide food that they never knew they needed.
The Kingdom of God, when you look at the Beatitudes, is like nothing the world knows. Meekness, mourning, hungering, being poor, being peaceful, these are the things that characterize the Kingdom. But if we are these things, just like salt, light, yeast, and seeds, we’ll have an amazing impact on our communities and our world, just simply living up to the nature that God intended for us.