Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
At first glance, it would appear that today’s Gospel lesson is a mashing together of two different topics. The first speaks of Christians as the salt of the earth and the light of the world, and the second discusses the fulfillment of the Law and possession of a superior righteousness. It seems as if Jesus is going off in two different directions.
Christ does regard His people as the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In both descriptions, He indicates that we have a mission to others. The Church, as the keeper and dispenser of the Gospel, exists for the sake of the world. She has a large vocation, indeed: The whole earth is her field of work, and it is across the whole earth she is to labor—not for her own ends, but to benefit mankind. As Christians, it would be a horrible error to reverse the position of Christ, and behave as though the world only existed for the benefit of the Church!
Although we primarily think of salt as a seasoning agent—and it is—its function since ancient times has also been to preserve that on which it is sprinkled from corrupting. We live in a world that constantly is in danger of sinking into an abyss. Society is threatened with disintegration by conflict between classes, races, religions. Family life is eroded by violence and irresponsibility.
Art is defiled and beauty is supplanted by the celebration of evil. A preserving and purifying agent is needed. That’s one of the functions of the Church.
God thinks the world is worth preserving. Otherwise why salt it? Christ does not desire the destruction of civilization, but its preservation. Christianity is not a system of skepticism or pessimism. Politics, commerce, art, literature, and science are all worth keeping from corruption. Christians are needed to function in all these endeavors.
Salt is also antiseptic. The Church is expected to be not merely pure, but also to purify. This does not mean that the Church should focus all its energies and resources on crusades against evil in the world, for crusades often turn in unhealthy directions on account of our own corrupt nature. However, the presence of Spirit-shaped men and women in the world tends to keep it sound and healthy, by the silent influence of example.
Recall how the old heathen world of the Roman Empire was rotting in vice when Christianity appeared and infused a new life of purity into society. We cannot calculate the advantage to the whole world of the presence of pure-minded, earnest, unselfish men and women. Even a few such people, like a little salt, can have an immense influence in preserving the best of society.
Nevertheless, Jesus says that salt may lose its flavor. It may not have actually become corrupt. Yet if it fails to perform its functions to season, preserve, and purify both by salting the earth with the Gospel and leading the way in showing Christ’s love, the Church would be a negative thing—useless, and only fit to be cast away as so much dust. If the grace of God, if the spirit of Christ, if the Divine life, vanish from the Church, the institution may still exist, but its proper mission will have ceased.
For the sake of the world, the spiritual vigor of the Church must be preserved. It will not do for the Church to be too comfortable, too friendly, too conciliatory to society. The Church is salt, not sugar.
Jesus also told His disciples in this text that they are the light of the world. Light banishes darkness. It reveals danger, shows us our path, cheers our hearts. All these things, too, are expected of Christian influence on the world. As a city on a hill or a lamp on its stand, Christians can not be ashamed of their confession. It is the Church’s duty to be prominent, not for her own sake or her own prestige, but to spread the light of Christ.
The light streams out to the nations by means of our Gospel witness as well as our good works. The world initially cares little for our words, but it has a sharp eye for our works. The joy of the Gospel must be written on the lives of Christians, that the world may see the reality of what we preach.
The objective of our witness to Christ and our works of love is the glory of God. If we forget this, the Church may drift toward self-glorification. But our works are not to our own credit, because, if they are good at all, the goodness in them comes from the grace of God. Therefore we glorify God in bearing fruit, by living so that His life shines out through our conduct, forming the sort of relationships that lead to opportunities to show the light of Christ in its full glory—the glory of the cross before the glory of the resurrection.
Then comes the seeming shift in Jesus’ message—from the “salt and light” section to the “fulfillment of the Law” section. But He is not a God of random thoughts and ideas. He is a God of order and purpose, and that includes weaving together His message so that it might benefit all who hear or read it. As we hear the attitude of our Lord towards the Old Testament, we ought to realize that it is by His Law that He accomplishes several purposes.
In theological terms, His Law has three uses, even while it is one and only one Law. You may recall these uses from your confirmation classes. The 1st use is a curb on sin, giving us—and all people—safe boundaries within which to dwell. In the 2nd use, the Law works as a mirror, reflecting our sin so we might be both ashamed and fearful, and driven to repentance that allows faith to enter in, grant us forgiveness, and restore us to fellowship with God and with one another. And in its 3rd use, the Law serves to guide us in living out our vocations in faithfulness to God and in love for our neighbor.
Jesus did not need to have the Law applied to Himself in its first or second uses, but He did live a sinless life by showing us how the Law works in its third use, guiding and directing the righteous. As He said in His own words, Jesus did not come to destroy the ancient teachings of the Law, but to fulfill it.
Like we have learned in Luther’s elaboration on the Ten Commandments in the Small Catechism, Christ’s own words show two positions—a negative and a positive aspect of the Law. We know and trust that the Old Testament was inspired by God. It records his words spoken to Moses and the prophets. Words of God are not to be lightly set aside, now matter how ancient they may be; no matter how seemingly quaint the ideas may sound to our post-modern ears.
Even thought the Old Testament is only the preliminary revelation of God’s message of salvation, it is not a less-real revelation. The truth it contains is partial only in the sense that it represents an earlier stage in our understanding of God. Yet all truth still has an eternal element in it—the essence of which we may discover when we strip off the husk of its temporary form.
The Old Testament is a grand testimony to righteousness. We can never dispense with the Ten Commandments. The stern warnings of the ancient prophets against both individual and national sin still stand as good today. They are the utterances of an eternal, divinely-given conscience.
If there is any shortcoming for which we can criticize the Old Testament, it is only that in pre-dating the coming of the Messiah, it is not a complete revelation. Yet even so, a great many people found it to be a sufficient revelation for receiving the gift of saving faith. The reception and acceptance of God’s promises for a rescue from sin, death, and the devil whispered through the trees of the Garden of Eden; they floated within the water-borne ark; they glistened in the uncountable stars winking over the head of Abraham.
From our perspective, the Old Testament may seem to be an insufficient revelation of God, but it was only defective by omission. It could not contain all truth, because when it was written the Jews were not capable of receiving all truth. These are not reasons for rejecting the covenants God gave there, though. The child is not to be blamed because he is not yet a man. Even so, the adult cannot afford to neglect the child on account of his immaturity, for the child is still a prophet from whom much may be learned. It cannot be denied that he lacks the man’s larger wisdom and more enduring strength.
The righteousness of law is not sufficient for us. It cannot create goodness in us, for its direction is formal and external. The deeper, more spiritual righteousness can only be realized when the Law is written on the heart, and this is done, as Jeremiah predicted, only under the new covenant.
In Jesus, any deficiencies we might perceive in the Old Testament revelation are fleshed out, literally. He not only fulfills prophecy by doing what it has predicted, He makes the whole revelation of God perfect by filling the gaps in the Old Testament. The Law is not perfected until its inner meaning is discovered and its living spirit brought forth; Jesus brings us from a mere understanding of the letter of the Law to a genuine grasp of its over-arching intentions by the Spirit.
The Law had never been perfectly kept until Jesus Christ came. He was absolutely faithful to it, and thus He satisfied its demands. This was not done primarily as example, but as a gracious and necessary gift for us who are morally, ethically, and dutifully poverty-stricken. To the extent any of us keep the Law, it is not our own doing, but the work of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
By stating that the Law would not perish until all had been fulfilled, Jesus indicated not that it passed away upon His death which accomplished our salvation, but that it remained in effect for the benefit of mankind until all of God’s promises came to pass on the Last Day. He included the Old Testament and the guidance of the moral law in His new revelation of the Gospel of the kingdom of God.
It is here that we come to Jesus’ last statement in this Gospel reading—that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. This might seem discouraging to us at first, for we know that the scribes and Pharisees strove mightily to be righteous. Yet they strove for a self-generated righteousness; a following of guidelines that they had crafted and rationalized so as to make them seem achievable, lulling themselves into a false sense of spiritual security.
Jesus tried to dispel the fog they had spewed around themselves, but for the most part, they clung to that with which they had grown comfortable. They rejected the true comfort we know—the comfort that Christ alone has fulfilled the Law for us. We point to His righteousness and not our own as the certainty of our adoption as sons and daughters of the Father. He is the only sure hope of our reconciliation with God and the promises of blessing and eternal life.
This does not mean that we reject the Law, for if we are brothers and sisters of Him who fulfilled the Law, we, too, are to love the Law and seek its fulfillment, to the extent His Spirit guides and enables us. Antinomianism—rejecting the Law of God—is distinctly un-Christian. If Christianity is to be found in the teachings of Christ, Christianity does not relax the moral Law. On the contrary, it elevates and strengthens that Law.
We cannot make a greater mistake than to suppose that the grace of Christ means a certain easy treatment, any reduction of duty, any release from the obligations of right. Forgiveness is not a pardon of the past with indifference to the future.
Instead, Christianity and the faith in Christ we believe, teach, and confess makes God’s forgiveness the solid foundation, and prepares us for a new and better life in the house of the Lord. More is expected of the Christian than of the unbeliever because we have the Spirit to guide and strengthen us; greater are the responsibilities of the convert than of the unrepentant sinner, for we know the Lord. Thanks be to God that He has made us His own through the blood of Jesus, and that He empowers us to be salt and light to the world.
Christ is true and real. He expects a genuine righteousness. He will not endure the mockery of those who profess what they do not do. Yet righteousness consists not just of deeds of the hands or words of the mouth, but thoughts of the heart as well. Christ looks for inward righteousness—the pure heart. He forbids hate as murder, and lust as adultery. The Law deals largely with negatives. Its refrain is, “Thou shalt not.” But Christ expects a positive goodness, a spirit of living energy—love and its out-flowing activity of service.
It may seem that Jesus is laying a heavy yoke on our shoulders. Is this consistent with his gracious promises and gospel invitations? Why would He do such a thing? When we look at the lofty standards Jesus gave just prior to this text, in the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, we have to consider His reasons for such seemingly impossible requirements.
But there we see that it is good to be righteous, for this means a higher joy. It is Jesus who is the Light revealing a fuller righteousness, teaching it in His words, illustrating it by His conduct.
The Law cannot secure righteousness; only the Gospel can do this. Christ brings to us a God-made righteousness, and He gives us the power to be all that He expects of us. His demand is only that we not frustrate the working of His Spirit in us. In this, His yoke is indeed easy, and His burden is light, for He has pulled the load and carried the burden for us—giving and sustaining our faith in Him through the uplifting gifts of His Word and Sacraments. Our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees because He has taken away the crushing burden of our sin, and has given us His perfect, eternal righteousness as our own. His salt of purification becomes ours to spread; the Light of the World ours to shine forth.
May He keep us faithful in our calling to be His salt and light to the world, until all is accomplished, to the glory of the Father who awaits us in the kingdom of heaven. Amen.