You are the salt of the earth . . . You are the light of the world: A city set on a hill cannot be hid
You cannot help but wonder what the disciples thought of Jesus telling them: You are the salt of the earth . . . You are the light of the world: A city set on a hill [which] cannot be hid. Pretty impressed, you might think. But I suspect not, because, just before he pays them those remarkable compliments, he gives the big, nearly impossible, and perfectly unreasonable condition of being salt and light and city: the Beatitudes.
Salt, light, city: these are of course tremendously flattering. All three have something in common:
Salt does not exist for itself, but to season things; salt is often the only thing that makes food edible.
Light does not exist for itself, but to illuminate its surrounding. The simplest remedy for our fears and uncertainties is to turn on the light.
The city on the hill is a visible point of orientation for others. We need to know where we are going and nothing is worse than being lost.
The excellence of each lies in its potential to give something to some another being. To say that we are salt, light and city is to say that we – Christians – make the world bearable. The only rub is that we have to pursue that peculiar life which is outlined in the Beatitudes.
However, strange it might have been for the disciples – or for us -- to be called salt, light, and city, it is nothing compared to the strange picture of the happy man, the blessed man in the Beatitudes: the man who is poor, invisible (i.e. meek), hungry, in mourning, trodden on, making peace (but not necessarily money!).
The Beatitudes seem to be a recipe for disaster, not success, for making yourself irrelevant, not indispensable, a recipe for misery, not happiness. In fact they are recipe for making us like Jesus.
The humility of the Beatitudes is not just something that Jesus recommends for someone else but ignores himself. He comes ‘down from heaven from heaven not to do his own will but the Father who sent him.’ “Not my will but thine be done.” It is this which makes him ‘the light of the world’ as surely as it makes us lights of the world.
The same is true of St. Paul in the Epistle: “the least of the apostles’ at his own admission’ yet he is light and seasoning because he ‘knows nothing’ and wants to proclaim nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified. He does not preach ‘with lofty words or wisdom’ but in weakness and fear and trembling’ because faith must rest not on our power but on the power of God. Were the Apostle to rely in his own eloquence and ability, he would not be a light-giver like Jesus, existing for the other, but would be inserting himself into the light and so be exactly like what Jesus had in mind when he used the image of a man putting a basket over a lamp. There would be no light; the light would be extinguished.
This Gospel is in fact pretty terrifying because Jesus says that Christians are either good for everything or good for nothing: “salt which has lost its saltiness is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men”. The Christian who does not live out the Beatitudes is useless.
A stark choice then is put before us: salt, light, city or nothing.
You are the salt of the earth . . . You are the light of the world: A city set on a hill cannot be hid.