Collect for Epiphany V
O LORD, we beseech thee to keep thy Church and household continually in thy true religion;
that they who do lean only upon the hope of thy heavenly grace may evermore be defended by thy mighty power;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Old Testament lesson:
Isaiah, 58, Vv 1 - 12
1 Corinthians, 2, Vv 1 - 16
New testament lesson:
St Matthew 5, Vv 13 - 20
Today’s gospel proclamation, from the fifth chapter of Saint Matthew, comes immediately after Jesus has given his listeners details of how things are different in the Kingdom of God. He had seen the size of the crowd that followed him and had taken refuge high in the mountain. Eventually those described as disciples followed and joined him. As we heard last Sunday, he gave them what is commonly called ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ or the Beatitudes.
Immediately following Jesus’ instructions contained within these Beatitudes, he told his listeners that they were the Salt of the Earth. Just what was he talking about? Salt is such an everyday commodity in our world that we merely acknowledge that we have it for use in our kitchens and on our meal tables. If we think about it at all it is to recognise that too much of it is not good for us and that we should attempt to purchase foodstuffs that have reduced salt levels. However, in ancient times salt was thought of in a very different way. Some have argued that the ability of salt to preserve food was the very foundation of civilisation. It was the use of salt that eliminated our earliest ancestors’ dependence on the availability of fresh and seasonal foods. Preserved and dried foods enabled peoples to travel greater distances from their homes; it enabled the world to be explored. In these early times salt was difficult to obtain and thus was a highly prized and expensive commodity. Common salt has been the basis of national economies. The Roman Empire increased the price of salt when it needed to raise revenues to fight its numerous wars. It was also instrumental in keeping prices low at other times so that the poorest citizens could afford this important addition to their diets. I have seen it argued that Roman soldiers were sometimes paid with salt, but it is more likely that the Latin word salarium, from which comes our word salary, refers to the extra money that was given in order that salt might be purchased.
Salt, then, was very important. It was because of its significance as an economic commodity and its worth as an important food preserver that at times unscrupulous traders would blend it with fine white sand. This was virtually indistinguishable from the raw, crystalline salt, so would pass un-noticed to the casual observer. Such additions did, of course, render the salt far less effective and sometimes useless for any purpose. This practice, that was not uncommon in first century Palestine, and it may be what Jesus was referring to when he said, as we heard, ‘if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.’ Yes, he described his disciples, to whom he was addressing these remarks, as, ‘You are the salt of the earth’. They were vitally important to him, just as salt was to the economy and to good living, but they had to be careful not to become contaminated and lose their essential purity. They must be careful not to let the fine white sand of secular life dilute the true, sacred salt that Christ alone gave them. They in their turn must be able to act as preservatives of the truth and enabling them, if we continue with the analogy, to travel with it to far off lands, when the time was right.
Jesus then turned to another illustration. He told his listeners that they were the Light of the World. As we know, light is a powerful concept throughout the whole of the Bible. If we accept the account of Creation given in the first chapter of the Book called Genesis than we may read in its opening verses that the first thing that God said was, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. If, instead, we follow the thinking of modern astrophysicists and cosmologists then we can imagine, perhaps, the enormous light that was generated by the Big Bang, that moment when God’s minute particle of matter, that singularity that contained all of the material, seen and unseen, in the whole universe, exploded into existence. Whichever way we see it, light has been, is, and ever will be the source of all understanding of the nature of God. It is a word that appears over five hundred times in the pages of the Bible. Jesus told his followers that their light must shine out to be of use. No one puts a light under a bushel basket; they let it give light to the whole house. In a similar way, their light, the light of Christ’s teaching in them, must shine out before others. The first of the so-called Offertory Sentences in the Prayer Book is, ‘Let you light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven’; words taken straight from Saint Matthew’s Gospel.
In the second half of our Gospel reading, Jesus changed the angle of his teaching. ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.’ A reading of Biblical texts about the Law and the Prophets could leave us very confused. On the one hand we have this strident statement that the Law and the Prophets must be fulfilled and maintained. On the other we have instances where Jesus seems to cut straight through the rigorous demands made on the Jewish people by their religious leaders. We could consider the many miracles and healings that Jesus seems to have done on Sabbath days, in contravention of well known regulations. He and his disciples were accused of eating on the Sabbath when they plucked grains of corn. Jesus ate and drank with publicans and sinners, contrary to established etiquette; he was accused of violating codes of cleanliness. He seemed happy to touch the sick and the dying. Jesus knew exactly how the various restrictive regulations of the Laws of Moses were abused by the very leaders who should have been upholding them. The remainder of the chapter that we heard, Chapter five, and almost all of the next two chapters are about Jesus’ version of the right attitude to these laws. They concerned: anger, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation, alms giving, prayer, fasting and serving two masters. Jesus understood the confusion in the minds of the Jews between the Laws of Moses and the Commandments of God. God’s laws, God’s commandments, have existed to regulate the behaviour of mankind ever since sin entered the world. Saint Paul, in his letter to the Christian Church in Rome wrote, ‘where there is no law, there is no sin’. Or, to put it the other way round, if there is no sin, there is no need of God’s law. Moses’ laws, which are explained in great detail in the early books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, were essentially of a ceremonial nature; they mainly concerned themselves with regulations for the priesthood, for sacrifices and for rituals. As we know now, they all foreshadowed the crucifixion. When Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, died on the cross as expiation for the sins of the whole world, he fulfilled and thereby cancelled the Mosaic laws. But, and a most important but, the Commandments of God stood fast. These were the sentiments that Jesus expressed when he said, ‘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’. His followers had to be more rigorous in their maintenance of the Commandments of God than any of the scribes and Pharisees who were supposed to be their teachers and leaders. Jesus concluded, ‘For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’.
What are we to make of this? Salt is one of our cheapest commodities, we even spread it on our roads by the lorry load to counter icy conditions; it is, as Jesus said, thrown out and trampled under foot. We add salt to our foods as a flavour enhancer although our best medical opinion tells us not to. Maybe we don’t quite see ourselves as the ‘salt of the earth’, yet that what Jesus asks us to be. Despite it being trampled underfoot on frosty pavements, we are expected to allow it to enhance the flavour of the Christian message that we portray in the world by our every thought and action. In a time when light is so easy to obtain, generally at the touch of a switch, we are to be ‘lights of the world’. In a society such as ours that has so much light, so much that in many places even the stars are obscured in the night sky, we have to shine even more brightly. And what of God’s Commandments? The Revised Prayer Book of 1928 contained, for the first time, a Summary of the Law, which could be used instead of a rehearsal of the full Ten Commandments at the commencement of the Holy Communion service. A minor canon at Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London suggested to the Dean that he might introduce this option in the next service. The Dean retorted, ‘The Ten Commandments have been thundered from the altars of this church at every Communion service since Sir Christopher Wren built it; it is a practice that I see no need to change’. We must be careful to discern the demands of God from those of the world. Although that Dean of London is now long dead, and the Commandments are rarely heard in corporate worship, they are still of vital importance to us as Christians. We could set ourselves a somewhat belated New Year’s resolution of reading them through occasionally – they may be found in our Prayer Books or in the twentieth chapter of the Book called Exodus. We must ask God to give us grace to keep his Commandments and to go from this place and be The Salt of the Earth and The Light of the World to those with whom we meet on our continuing Christian pilgrimage.
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