Salt and light, city and letter: Reading Matt. 5.13-16 and 2 Cor. 3.2-3 with Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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April 24, 2013 by jmar198013

You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 5.13-16)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer had this to say about Matt. 5.13-16:

“Ye are the salt. Jesus does not say, “You must be the salt. It is not for disciples to decide whether they will be the salt of the earth, for they are so whether they like it or not, they have been made salt by the call they have received. Again, it is, “Ye are the salt,” not “Ye have the salt” … [T]he word speaks of their whole existence in so far as it is grounded anew in the call of Christ … The call of Christ makes those who respond to it the salt of the earth in their total existence.

Of course, there is another possibility–the salt may lose its savour and cease to be salt at all. It just stops working. Then it is indeed good for nothing but to be thrown away. That is the peculiar quality of salt. Everything needs to be seasoned with salt, but if the salt itself has lost its savour, it can never be salted again. Everything else can be saved by salt, however bad it has gone–only salt which loses its savour has no hope of recovery. That is the other side of the picture. That is the judgment that always hangs over the disciple community, whose mission is to save the world, but which, if it ceases to live up to that mission, is itself irretrievably lost. The call of Jesus Christ means either that we are the salt of the earth, or else we are annihilated; either we follow the call, or we are crushed by it.

“Ye are the light.” Once again, it is not: “You are to be the light,” they are already the light because Christ has called them … How impossible, how utterly absurd it would be for the disciples–these disciples, such men as these!–to try and become the light of the world! No, they are already the light, and the call has made them so. Nor does Jesus say, “You have the light.” The light is not an instrument which has been put into their hands, such as their preaching. It is the disciples themselves … It is the property of light to shine. A city set on a hill cannot be hid; it can be seen for miles away, whether it is a fortified burgh, a stronghold or a tottering ruin. This city set on the hill … is the disciple community. But this is not to say that the disciples have now to make their first decision. The only necessary decision has already been taken. Now they must be what they really are–otherwise they are not followers of Jesus. The followers are a visible community; their discipleship visible in action which lifts them out of the world–otherwise it would not be discipleship. And of course the following is as visible to the world as a light in the darkness or a mountain rising from a plain.

Did not the cross become extraordinarily visible amongst all the darkness to the terrified spectators? Are the rejection and suffering of Christ, his death before the gates of the city on the hill of shame, not visible enough? … It is in this light that the good works of the disciples are meant to be seen. Men are not meant to see the disciples but their good works, says Jesus. And these works are none other than those which the Lord Jesus himself has created in them by calling them to be the light of the world under the shadow of his cross. The good works are poverty, peregrination, meekness, peaceableness, and finally persecution and rejection. All these good works are a bearing of the cross of Jesus Christ … Jesus does not say that men will see God; they will see the good works and glorify God for them. The cross and the works of the cross, the poverty and renunciation of the blessed in the beatitudes, these are the things which will become visible … It is by seeing the cross and the community beneath it that men come to believe in God.

Bonhoeffer’s words here are helpful if you have ears to hear. Stanley Hauerwas’ famous thesis that, “The first task of the church is to be itself,” is cut from the same cloth. Disciples are salt and light by virtue of their calling. The church is a city on a hill by virtue of its being formed by Christ. We have no choice in this matter. But we do decide, by merit of what we do or leave undone, by the faithfulness or faithlessness of our witness, whether the salt is any good or not; whether the light is hid under a bucket; and whether the city on the hill stands as “a stronghold or a tottering ruin.”

Taking what we have learned from Bonhoeffer’s keen insight into Matt. 5.13-16, we can make similar application to something Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians:

You are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are Christ’s letter, delivered by us. You weren’t written with ink but with the Spirit of the living God. You weren’t written on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. (2 Cor. 3.2-3 CEB)

Paul says, “You are Christ’s letter.” Not, “You’re supposed to be Christ’s letter, so act like it”; or, “You have a letter from Christ, now read it well.” No, disciple; no, church: We are a letter from Christ. What is up to us is whether or not that letter is hate mail.


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