On the eve of his crucifixion, our Lord prayed for his disciples . . . and for you and me. He said: “Father, I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” (John17:15-16). There are times when I wish that Jesus might have prayed differently. It’s not that I’m ungrateful. I’m delighted that Jesus asked the Father to protect me from the evil one. But there are times when I wish that He had prayed, “Father, take them out of the world!” But He didn’t. And He won’t. Therefore, although we are not “of” this world, we are still “in” it, and that by God’s design. For His own reasons, God has chosen not to deliver His people from their responsibilities on this earth. So what, then, is our responsibility to this world? What role, if any, is the Christian to play in society?
Radically different answers have been given to that question. Some insist that we are here to transform society, whether through political or social activism. Our duty, so goes the argument, is to alleviate racial bigotry, eliminate poverty, deliver the oppressed, and do whatever else is necessary to rid the earth of injustice and inequity. Others argue that in view of the moral and spiritual decay of society, we must withdraw. “Why polish brass on a sinking ship?” Neither of these answers is of much help. Here in Matthew 5:13-16 we see our Lord’s answer. By means of two metaphors Jesus provides us with a broad outline of our obligation to the people and institutions around us: “You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world.” It is important to note why this passage follows immediately upon the Beatitudes.
First, it is impossible to live according to the norms of the kingdom, described in vv.2-12, in a purely private way. These virtues, in isolation from others, easily degenerate into self-righteousness. Our Lord’s point is that these virtues are to govern not only our relationship to Him but to the world as well. That surprises some people. After all, what possible influence could the people described in the Beatitudes exert in this cold, hard-hearted, tough, dog-eat-dog world of ours? What lasting good can the meek and poor in spirit have in society? People whose pre-eminent passion is for purity of heart, who yearn not for power but to show mercy, are not the sort one normally thinks of as having much of an impact in life. Will they not be overwhelmed, ignored, and exploited? People often listen to sermons on the Beatitudes and nod in agreement, but secretly are saying to themselves: “I’m not about to live like that out there. I’d get mauled!” Aren’t people like this too feeble to achieve anything, especially since they are in the minority? Evidently, Jesus didn’t share that opinion. Incredible as it may seem, he described that handful of Palestinian peasants and fishermen as the salt of the earth and the light of the world!
Second, what Jesus says here would be meaningless were it not for the fact that the Christian and the world are distinct. “On the one hand there is ‘the earth’; on the other there is ‘you’ who are the earth’s salt. On the one hand there is ‘the world’; on the other there is ‘you’ who are the world’s light” (John Stott, 58). Unless we are distinct from the world in such a way that the world knows it, what Jesus says profits little. In other words, this text is telling us to be what none of us wants to be: different (not odd, strange, weird, or quirky, but morally and spiritually different). It is telling us to do what none of us wants to do: stand out in a crowd. By nature we don’t want to be the salt of the earth; we want to be the earth! We don’t want to be the light of the world; it’s much easier and safer to be the world!
Finally, these metaphors tell us a great deal about the world itself. It is rotten to the core, ever on the path to deterioration. In addition, it is in utter darkness, blinded to the truth. For all of its pompous claims to be “enlightened” and “progressive”, the world is in fact both darkened and putrefied. It is in a world that is decaying, therefore, that Christians are to be salt, and in a world that languishes in darkness that Christians are to be light.