Fred B. Craddock is professor of preaching and New Testament at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 31, 1990, p. 98, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
To cling uncritically to the past is to purchase security at the price of denying that God is a living God, continually doing new things among us,
The Casual Reader of Matthew 5:13-20 will be struck by the apparent disjunctures both between the passage and its context and within the passage itself. The Beatitudes conclude at verse 12 and Jesus immediately addresses his followers as the "salt of the earth" and "the light of the world." These images are radically different, but not so different as the very next line: "Do not think that I came to destroy the law or the prophets: I came not to destroy but to fulfill." Granted, the Sermon on the Mount is most likely a composite of teachings given on different occasions, but even composites have a uniting center or a discernible movement. Is such unity totally absent here?
The careful reader will notice that the Beatitudes are in the third person, generic and impersonal like proverbs, until verse 11, at which point Jesus says, "Blessed are you." Although verse 10 has already blessed those persecuted for the cause of righteousness, verse 11 applies to situations of reproach, persecution and false accusations, "for my sake." This Beatitude is now not only personal in its address, but it identifies the blessed as followers of Jesus. Furthermore, Jesus has introduced two categories that call for elaboration: a persecuting world out there and the tradition of the suffering prophets. In other words, Jesus sets his disciples in two contexts, both of which are essential arenas in which they are to live out their faithfulness: the world in general and the community of God’s people.
For the first context, Jesus offers affirmation, warning and instruction. The affirmation is in two vivid images, "You are the salt of the earth" and "You are the light of the world." Notice "You are" not "You ought to be or should try to be." Both salt and light are so basic and essential to human life that Jesus felt no need to spell out what this meant. However, having introduced the existence of hostility toward the gospel, Jesus does elaborate on what can happen to God’s people under persecution and sustained opposition. Salt can lose its integrity, its identifying quality as salt. This does not occur suddenly, of course, but so gradually that those to whom it happens do not perceive themselves as changing and cannot identify later a single time or place when their faith ceased. Certainly the loss was not intentional; it was more a matter of drifting away, or like the case of Samson who rose from sleep to go out against the Philistines not realizing that in the night he had been shorn of God’s strength.
Or, says Jesus, how easy it is to lose initiative in mission and take up a posture of protection and defense after one suffers verbal, physical, social or economic abuse for one’s faith. For example, building a city on a hill is sound strategy for self-defense, but the increased visibility attracts even more hostility. Or again, putting a lamp under a bushel certainly reduces the chance of having it blown out, but the price for such protection is darkness. In other words, the way of Christ is mission: witnessing and benevolent intrusion into the life of the world. There is no way that Christ’s cause can be converted into an individual or community lifestyle of self-interest, self-protection and defense against vulnerability. To do so is not to interpret Christ differently, but to abandon him. The way of Christ is to take the initiative and rather than hide from the world, let the light shine in the hopeful trust that the praise of God will be increased.
As for the second context, the tradition of faith. Jesus calls for continuity and fulfillment. Continuity with Judaism is introduced not as a doctrinal matter but as an experience: you are one with God’s prophets who suffered before you. The very first mention of union between Christianity and Judaism, church and synagogue, is on the issue of receiving the common blow, hearing the common slander, facing the common false witness, feeling the common sword. That Jesus would mention this first as the thread of continuity between the two communities means at least that common suffering for the way of God in the world should season all conversations between the two communities on matters institutional and theological.
It is only at this point that Jesus announces that his own ministry is not separate from the testimony of the Hebrew Scriptures. We do not know if Matthew’s church was having a problem in this regard. We do know that some in the early church were persuaded that Moses and the prophets should be left intact and Jesus added on, while others were equally adamant about cutting free from the tradition altogether. Working in and with the continuities and discontinuities of tradition is a difficult matter. In a community’s infancy, tradition provides life and nurture, identity and stability; in adolescence, strong voices say that identity can be realized only by rejecting tradition. However, as a community matures it exercises more discrimination. A blanket rejection of the past does not say something about Judaism so much as it does about one’s view of God. On the other hand, to cling uncritically to the past is to purchase security at the price of denying that God is a living God, continually doing new things among us,
Jesus stood within his own heritage but was not blind to its distortions and falsifications. So it was that he often appealed to the tradition to admonish interpretations of it that violated its intent and spirit. His mission, he said, was not one of abolition but of completion, and those who follow him are to manifest such a mission in their behavior and relationships. Anyone who appeals to faith and freedom in Christ to do less, be less, give less, serve less and love less than our forebears has grossly misunderstood Jesus’ message.