Salt and light. You are the seasoning that brings out the hidden flavor. You are the light that enables the world to see. You don’t just live, you experience the fullness of what life in Christ has to offer. You don’t just stumble blindly, you illuminate the truth and beauty that is all around. And when you act like salt and light, the whole world begins to catch a glimpse of your Father in Heaven.
This is the statement that leads Jesus into saying that not one letter or stroke of a letter in the law will pass away before all is accomplished. The point of the law is not you. You are NOT the point of the law. The point of the law is becoming the salt and light for the world.
13“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
When Sallie and I got married, I was what you might call, a stickler for the rules. I’ve always liked rules. They’re like a warm blanket that you can surround yourself with and feel the reassuring limits that keep you safe and protected. I did my best to live up to all the rules; and I would go so far as trying not to go any more than 2 over the speed limit on all roads. Then I moved to Houston. Following the letter of the speed limit signs when driving on a small country road feels like a great way to be safe and avoid any sudden turns or tractors in the road. Following the letter of the speed limit sign on I-45 feels like a great way to get yourself rear ended.
It’s not that I try to drive like a maniac, I just have a lot of other priorities that seem more urgent than closely monitoring the speedometer. And, before you go and try to get out of a speeding ticket by saying that your pastor told you it was OK to speed; I should state clearly that you might have missed my point. I’m not making a claim about whether or not you have to follow every law of the land and I’m not saying it’s a good and righteous things to speed. I’m saying that fulfilling the law is an entirely different experience in one context vs another. The same law, the same intent, the same font size and lettering on the speed limit sign is what you’ll find on country roads and interstates alike – but the experience of the drive on different roads is nothing alike.
To think that the skillset and experience of driving on one road carries over to the other is not only wrong, it’s dangerous. Drive like you would on an interstate and on a country road you’re only one sharp curve or pothole from ending up in the ditch. Drive on the interstate like it’s a country road and you’ll probably wind up taking someone out as they fly up from nowhere and merge without a signal. The point of the law is to help you and everyone around you end up at your destinations safe and sound. What that looks and feels like in practice are worlds apart.
This might seem like a strange place to start a sermon, but I would argue that the same dynamic about law and life is at play in our reading from Matthew’s gospel. Starting from the halfway point, Jesus says “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” Not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law.
A more precise translation is that not one jot or tittle will pass. These are obviously uncommon words. Here’s your pretentious lesson for the day, you can impress your friends later. In Hebrew, the jot is the smallest letter and almost looks like an accent mark more than an actual letter. It’s derived from the same word as iota, which means a very small and insignificant thing. A tittle is even less significant, it’s like the little dot you’d put on a lower case ‘i’ – barely even a mark worth bothering to make sometimes. Not the smallest letter, not the smallest mark of a letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
Jesus didn’t know about Texas DMV codes, I can assure you. And he wasn’t talking about the Roman tax codes or the local ordinances either. The only law that is consistently referenced throughout the Bible is the law recorded and examined throughout the Old Testament. When Paul or the disciples or Jesus or virtually anyone else refers to “the law,” they are not referring to a vague moral code of the universe or some kind of code of Christian ethics. What they always mean by ‘the law’ is what we find in the pages of the Old Testament.
The first 5 books, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are known as the Torah, or quite literally, the books of the law. Within them you’ll find all kinds of commands and prohibitions and requirements for what it means to be the people of God. Some of them are probably quite familiar and taken for granted – Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Don’t lie.
Some are familiar and we know we should do them on some level, but other priorities get in the way or other concerns make it hard to put it into practice. Remember the Sabbath and keep it Holy. No idols. Don’t covet or be jealous. Perhaps, Honor thy Father and Mother. You are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.
Some of the laws have to deal with the system of sin and sacrifice – You shall not enter the temple in an unclean state. You shall offer only animals without blemish. All fat is the Lord’s, you must not eat the fat or the blood for it belongs to the Lord.
Some laws just seem outright weird – You shall not eat rock badger. You shall not boil a baby goat in it’s mother’s milk. You shall not touch the dead carcass of a pig. You shall designate a place outside the camp where you will go when you need to…go.
There are countless other specific and general laws recorded. And I’m sure we each have some kind of internal ranking system by which we set these up against each other and pick how much we care or how important it is to follow a given law. Don’t steal, that seems important. Don’t eat rock badger, I’m not sure what that is, so I’m probably good. Don’t eat a cheeseburger? Doesn’t seem important at all even though that’s what many Jewish interpreters think it means to avoid boiling a baby goat in its mother’s milk.
Here’s the problem though – nowhere in scripture or divine skywriting is it ever said that one law or one kind of law is any different than any other. The closest thing you get is Jesus saying to Love the lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. But even Jesus goes on to say that these are the most important two commandments because all the law and the prophets hang on them. They are not replaced by them. They are not less important than these two. The rest of the laws simply get their life and meaning from this foundation.
Any division you make between ceremonial vs moral laws or sacrificial vs practical or any other division is not something provided for us by anyone before, during, or near the time of Christ. Only later do you find systematic classifications of laws and thereby different values placed on them and different expectations about whether or not to follow the laws. Dietary laws and circumcision aren’t even discarded in the New Testament, Peter and Paul simply realize that you are not disqualified from following God if you don’t adhere to the letter of those two laws, which is to say that Gentiles can be part of God’s people too; but the law is still the law.
In today’s reading Jesus tells us not the smallest letter of the law, not the smallest stroke of a letter of the law will pass away until all is accomplished. The law is this vast array of stuff in the Old Testament, some of which seems pretty commonsensical, some of which is stranger than anything you’ll find on the books today. And Jesus came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Not to get rid of the law, but to be its perfect representation and example and foundation.
Why then do we so deeply believe that we don’t have to actually do the things that the law lays out? Jesus says nothing in the law will pass away – and most of us couldn’t even name a tenth of what the law says, much less do we actually do it. Two strategies are probably the most commonly discussed for dealing with this tension.
First, you can argue that Jesus says the law is in place “until all is accomplished” – what he meant was until the resurrection. His death and resurrection accomplished salvation for God’s people – even if we don’t yet see that reality everywhere the battle is already won and we are free from the grip of the law.
Second, you can argue that Jesus fulfills the law for us or in us so that we don’t have to. It’s not that we aren’t bound by the law per se, but that the righteousness of Jesus accomplished all that needed to happen and we are either covered by the righteousness of Jesus like a warm blanket or we are given the gift of that righteousness like a heart transplant that overrides our sinful habits.
I’m not going to say there is no value in either approach or that either is exactly wrong. But I also don’t care much for either way out of the tension. Both responses are entirely focused on the mentality that says faith is about me getting into heaven and not about building God’s kingdom in the here and now. And neither way out gives me any reason to expect that the new life Christ offers has the power to change the way I live and relate to every other child of God.
Instead of trying to resolve the tension I take a different approach. I won’t try to figure out why Jesus might not have really meant what he said or implied what seems so straightforward. And, don’t worry, I also won’t say that you have to memorize every law in the Old Testament. To focus on whether or not I am bound to the Old Testament law is to ask the wrong question. I would challenge you to instead look back just one paragraph before Jesus makes this pronouncement.
You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. Salt and light. You are the seasoning that brings out the hidden flavor. You are the light that enables the world to see. You don’t just live, you experience the fullness of what life in Christ has to offer. You don’t just stumble blindly, you illuminate the truth and beauty that is all around. And when you act like salt and light, the whole world begins to catch a glimpse of your Father in Heaven.
This is the statement that leads Jesus into saying that not one letter or stroke of a letter in the law will pass away before all is accomplished. The point of the law is not you. You are NOT the point of the law. The point of the law is becoming the salt and light for the world. The law hasn’t changed, but the road on which we are driving certainly has. I don’t actually know a single person who does full time agricultural work, but I’d be surprised if there was a single person in the Bible who could say the same. The one and only temple was the center of city life and national identity, now there’s a church on every corner. Only a few people had access to the scrolls of scripture and fewer still could read, now half the planet is within a few seconds and clicks of accessing nearly every piece of writing ever composed.
The world is so completely different, but fulfilling the law is still fundamentally the same. Engage in the practices and read all the books and do all the work that point your life toward God; do all these things that help you to experience the love and grace of God that transform the world. Studying the means by which our mothers and fathers in the faith knew God is vital to helping us understand. But it’s just as important to see that the life of the church has never been one, static, unchanging thing. God is always showing us new ways to be salt and light.
Even the “traditional” order of service and hymns we Methodist so love to hold onto are really only a tradition that is set in the 1940s and 50s. The life of the law takes new forms with every new generation and season of church life. As you begin to taste and see that the Lord is good; as you begin to see by the brightness of a new day – you will become salt and light by which all of God’s children are drawn into the grace and love of God.
It doesn’t matter if faithfulness now looks a little different in practice. Your driving style had better match the road you’re on. Embody the love of Jesus Christ in all things. Be the voice of compassion when the world wants a stoning. Offer hospitality when the world turns away. Be willing to listen when no one else will. Trust in the faithfulness of God even when you can’t finish the race alone. The more you turn toward Jesus Christ, the more your life will reflect His world upside down, challenge everything we take for granted style of law and order. In doing so you will become salt and light. You will know the majesty of the Lord over Heaven and Earth. You will experience what it’s like to fulfill the law.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.