5th Sunday after Epiphany: Point to the Truth
By: The Rev. Chelsey Hillyer
Oh, this week’s text is fraught with temptation for the Epiphany-weary preacher. With Christmas finally fading from view (thank the little-baby-Jesus) and Ash Wednesday lurking in the early bits of March, this text offers the preacher the tantalizing possibility of splitting the pericope for an easy tagline. Most commentaries will tell you to divide and conquer this text: pick the seasoning, pick the light, or pick the law and the righteousness, and preach from there. It’ll be tempting. But my encouragement is to resist.
Resist your desire to preach on salt. On its history and origins. On its various uses as a spice and vitamin, as currency, as a way to keep semi-trucks from skidding off of icy winter highways. As fascinating a meditation as you can craft on that crystalline flavorizer, your community doesn’t need a message about salt right now. Resist.
And further, resist your desire to preach on light. I know, I know. It could be beautiful. You could finally do that great object lesson with the lava lamp and the basket. And who doesn’t want more lava lamps in worship? But your community doesn’t need a message about light right now. Resist.
And oh, please, do not preach on righteousness. Because I don’t care how much you try, those messages always wind up sounding like a humble-brag or a slow and painful barrage of guilt, not unlike repeated Nerf bat blows to the head and neck. And your community doesn’t need a message about righteousness right now. Resist.
Because what your community needs right now is to hear about all of it: the beauty and the mystery of the metaphors right up alongside the call to righteous action. Just as Matthew’s community did.
Matthew didn’t have an easy job. There was tension to navigate with a legalistic Judaic school of thought at the time. And internally, there was friction. Matthew sought to show that Jesus’ teachings were authoritative because his life was an illustration and fulfillment of the Torah and the prophets. Most commentaries agree on Matthew’s literary pluck in crafting Jesus’ five discourses in the book as a nod to the five books of the Torah, and it’s no secret that Matthew portrays Jesus as the new Moses. (He’s preaching this sermon from a mount for good reason.) But beyond writing of Jesus as the Rabbi Supreme, Matthew also needed to inspire; to spark the imaginations of his community to become curious about how mere interpretation of the Law and prophets was not the same as embodying them. Matthew’s boldness is in his insistence that Jesus was the Torah, the Instruction…and then in insisting that his community’s task was to do the same. Pretty badass, but it’s a vision that must be cast finesse, and the Sermon on the Mount does so brilliantly: it first outlines reward, then a vision for practice.
As we break it up for the lectionary, last week we got the Beatitudes, outlining the alternative rewards that a community seeking to embody Torah might expect to receive and endure. It’s always smart to start with the rewards. Next week, we’ll get the compare and contrast essay: You’ve heard the law is like this, but here’s how it really is when it’s lived out. And this week? Well, this week, we have this strange transition between the two.
Verses 13-16 (Salt ‘n’ Light, as I affectionately call it) are not pure Matthew, but placing them as a transition piece is a unique move. It’s important to note that these are metaphors, not parables and not allusions or allegories which are easily representative and thus more easily interpreted. Metaphors are an entirely different beast. They stretch. They move. They are elastic with time. As I sit here preparing for an ice storm to hit St. Louis, my ideas of salt have different connotations than Matthew’s Jesus likely intended. And with my electricity humming as I write in the evening, light probably means something different to me as well. And that’s OK. Because these images are metaphor. They are malleable in their interpretation. We could spend time fleshing them out, characterizing and making them more solid, more relatable. But I don’t think we should. I think we should resist. Mostly, because that’s what Matthew did.
Instead, he shifts the tone and gives some direct talk on Jesus’ mission, correcting any misinterpretation that may have happened along the way. “Don’t misunderstand me,” Jesus says. “I’m here to be righteous. But I’m also here to tell you that there’s a new righteousness in town.” Ah! Can’t you just imagine the disciples high-fiving each other during this speech?
But the radical assertion Jesus makes in this passage is the same assertion Matthew is making with his Gospel: that righteousness is not about knowing the Law and being able to stand in its presence. Rather, righteousness is knowing the Law and living the Law…and then having others learn the Law by observing it as it is embodied. The gift that Jesus gives the disciples, Matthew gives to his community, and we have the honor (and the challenge) of giving it to ours: that instruction is taught through action, not simple instruction. Jesus points out that the Pharisees’ error is that they learn and then interpret and then teach through interpretation. The question Jesus raises is why righteousness needs interpretation at all. Salt needs no interpretation. Nor does light. Nor does righteousness that is learned by living example.
Salt cannot help being salty. Light cannot help but shine. They are set apart, unique, endowed with a clear and certain purpose and identity. In these metaphors, Jesus offers the disciples a way to understand their unique and unchangeable identities as people of God, which cannot be transmuted.
And righteousness is not just to be learned. It is to be learned and lived, and in living it, it is taught. Jesus embodies this. And in this passage, Jesus offers the disciples a way to understand how his unique task is both revolutionary and required. Matthew’s community needed to hear both of these messages. Your community does, too.
Your community has endured the most contentious, painful, traumatic election of their lives. In full technicolor and 24-hour surround sound. They have watched the farewell address of a President who encouraged the nation to talk to those they disagree with, and they have witnessed the inauguration of a President who won the election with the central theme of wall-building. To some in your community this represents defeat. To some in your communities, it’s victory. These are times to be bold. These are also times to teach by example.
Your preaching task isn’t to describe and define what saltiness and light are for us today. The metaphors speak for themselves. But you do need to remind your community that they are called, that they are inherently, deeply, elementally called to be God’s people in the world.
Your task also isn’t to define righteousness. Matthew works hard to show us that Jesus is righteousness. Your task is to remind people that it’s not enough to know righteousness when you see it, whether in legalism or in the life of Jesus. Your task is to point to the fact that Jesus taught his disciples who taught others who taught others about walking in the way that leads to life by actually walking in the way that leads to life. And that it’s not enough that your people simply inherit this teaching. They must find a way to live it. And they must find a way to transmit that teaching through their living.
You don’t have to define what all of this looks like. You don’t have to have all the answers. You just have to point to the truth that is the truth and has always been the truth. Salt is salt. Light is light. And righteousness is a way of life, not a curriculum.
The Rev. Chelsey Hillyer currently serves as Pastor for Union United Methodist Church in St. Louis, Missouri. She is an activist, writer, and community-builder. You can contact her via email at email@example.com.