Salt and Light (Matthew 5:13-16)

by T.V. Philip

T. V. Philip, born in India and a lay member of the Mar Thoma Church, has worked and taught in India, Europe, USA and Australia. He is a church historian, and a former Professor at the United Theological College, Bangalore, India.

The following appeared in The Kingdom of God is Like This, by T.V. Philip, jointly published by the Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and Christava Sahitya Samithy (CSS), Cross Junction, M.C. Road, Tiruvalla-689 101, Kerela, India. The material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The Christian’s task is to be the salt of society, preserving, reconciling, adding taste, giving meaning where there is no meaning, giving hope where there is no hope. We are called to be the light for the world. Jesus Christ is the real light which enlightens everyone.

Matthew 5:13-16:

You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? ... You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid... Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

The Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes. It tells us that those who are poor, those who are hungry, those who weep, those whose hearts are pure, those who work to establish peace, those who suffer for the cause of justice -- they are all blessed in the kingdom of God.

Then the Sermon on the Mount speaks of the response of those who are blessed. What is our responsibility? It tells us: ‘You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world’. All who are blessed are called to a responsibility. Christian discipleship, membership in the kingdom of God, is a great responsibility. In the Old Testament, the prophets reminded Israel again and again that it is not a light thing to be God’s chosen people.

Writing to the scattered Christian congregations in Asia Minor, Peter in his first Epistle tells them:

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received God’s mercy but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10)

In the Old Testament, it is the entire people of Israel who are addressed as a royal priesthood, a holy nation. Peter echoes this. The whole Christian congregation is the royal priesthood with a ministry and mission to proclaim the wonderful deeds of God.

After the Beatitudes, Jesus tells the disciples of their responsibility in society, in the world. The focus of God’s action is the world -- not simply the Church or Christians. ‘Let your light shine before people that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven.’ It is about our deeds in the world.

Christians are not other worldly. We are not to spend our time thinking of how to escape from the world. Nor are we to be preoccupied with churchly matters. The Church is not the kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is about this world, and about our life and witness in the world. It is about politics, about economics and about culture. It is about our environment, about the destruction of nuclear weapons. It is about peace. How are we to fulfil our responsibility in the society in which we live? Jesus said: You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world.

In the first place, Christians are to be the salt of the earth. When we want to stress a person’s worth we often say that he or she is the salt of the earth. In the ancient world, salt was highly valued. The Greeks called salt divine. Salt performs two important functions. It is the commonest of all preservatives. It keeps things from going bad. For millions of people in the world, salt still has this purpose. In the second place, salt gives taste and flavor to food. Food without salt is insipid.

The Christian’s task is to be the salt of society, preserving, reconciling, adding taste, giving meaning where there is no meaning, giving hope where there is no hope. It is about the quality of life. It is interesting that when the early Christians were persecuted in the Roman Empire, the Christian Apologists pleaded for tolerance saying that society continued to exist because of Christians. What they were saying was that Christians upheld the good values in life, they worked for reconciliation and peace, and they prayed for the empire and its well being.

To be the salt of society means that we are deeply concerned with its well being. We preserve cultural values and moral principles and make a contribution to the development of cultural and social life. We add taste and flavor to the common life. Because there are Christians in a city or in a village, its people should be able to praise God for the harmony and fellowship, joy and happiness which Christians bring to the common life.

We are also called to be the light of the world. The New English Bible translates: ‘You are the light for all the world’. It means we are to be light in all aspects of the world’s life. It also means we are to be light for all the people of the world. It takes us out of our preoccupation with the welfare of the Christian community alone.

One of the serious problems in the world today is religious communalism, that is, people’s preoccupation with the interests of their own religious or ethnic group. The conflicts between Roman Catholics and Protestants, between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, between Jews and Muslims, between Muslims and Hindus, between Roman Catholics and Muslims and between Shia and Sunni Muslims are facts of life today. We are called to be the light for the world. Jesus Christ is the real light which enlightens everyone.

The metaphor of light is often used in the Bible. Jews spoke of Jerusalem as light to the Gentiles. But Jerusalem does not produce its own light. It is God who lights the lamp of Israel. Moreover, Jerusalem cannot hide its light. The prophet Isaiah summons Israel thus:

Arise, shine, your light has come,

and the glory of the Lord rests upon you ...

nations will come to your light

and kings to the brightness of your dawn. (Isaiah 60:1,3)

Speaking of the Messianic age, Isaiah says:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;

those who dwell in a land of deep darkness,

on them the light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2)

This prophecy was fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ. Jesus said: ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life’. (John 8:12) Again he said: ‘While I am in the world, I am the light of the world’.

Jesus Christ is the true light of all the world. He has lighted a light in the life of each one of his followers. Christian disciples are called to rise and shine. St. Paul exhorts the Christians in Philippi ‘to be blameless and innocent in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as light in the world’.

Christians are to be torch bearers in a dark world. One should not try to hide the light which God has lit in our lives. Rather we should shine so that others may see our good deeds and praise God; Shining does not mean self-propaganda, self-publicity, self-glorification, but bearing fruit in our life, bringing life and light to others. It is about our deeds in society -- in politics, in culture and in social life.

Christians are not to be indifferent to politics but must actively participate in the political life of their country. There is a saying in India that it does not matter whether Rama (God) rules or Ravana (the Devil) rules. This is not so with Christians. It matters very much which political party rules and which policies are implemented.

The Bible does not give us a programme for political action, but it gives us a picture of God and his purposes for his creation. In the Beatitudes we see a God who comforts those who mourn, a God who satisfies the needs of the poor and the hungry. To be a light is to follow this God, struggling to bring about social justice in our society, to safeguard human rights and to work for peace and reconciliation.

If you cease to prevent justice, if you feed the hungry

and satisfy the needs of the wretched, then your light will

rise like dawn out of darkness. (Isaiah 58:8)