Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.
— Matthew 5:13-16
Every Christian is called by God to be an influence on the world around them. Jesus began teaching this concept early in his ministry when he told his disciples he would make them fishers of men. (Matthew 4:19) Then, in the Sermon on the Mount, He used the illustrations of salt and light. (Matthew 5:13-16) They both have properties which affect things around them. Salt enhances flavor and is used as a preservative. To ‘be salt’ means to deliberately seek to influence the people in one’s life by showing them the unconditional love of Christ through good deeds. Light is a symbol meaning awareness, knowledge, and understanding. To ‘be light’ is to be a witness to others concerning the truth of God’s Word especially about who Christ is and how He died and rose again for our salvation.
These two images used by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, are one of His main teachings on morality and discipleship. They immediately follow the Beatitudes and are often interpreted as referring to Jesus’ expectations of his disciples. The general theme of Matthew 5:13–16 is promises and expectations.
The first verse of this passage introduces the phrase “salt of the earth”:
Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.
— Matthew 5:13
The value of salt, especially in the ancient world cannot be underestimated. Roman soldiers received their wages in salt. The Greeks considered salt to be divine. Mosaic Law required all offerings presented by the Israelites to contain salt. (Lev. 2:13) When Jesus told his disciples they were “the salt of the earth”, they understood the metaphor. While the universal importance of salt is not as readily apparent in our modern world, the mandate Jesus gave to his first disciples is still relevant and applicable to His followers today.
What are the characteristics of salt which caused the Lord to use it in this context? I believe it is about preservation and keeping faith fresh. Those first disciples would have been intimately familiar with this function of salt. Without refrigeration, the fish they caught would quickly spoil and rot unless packed in salt. Once salted, the fish could be safely stored and used when needed.
We have been given a wonderful privilege to be the salt of the earth, but Jesus gave us a warning. The second half of Matthew 5:13 states: “But if salt loses its taste, how would its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden underfoot by men.” Jesus did not say we can lose our salvation; He said we can lose our saltiness. When salt is contaminated it becomes corrosive and poisonous. Salt cannot even be used in the field, so it has to be thrown on the road. The Roman general Scipio Aemilianus Africanus plowed over and sowed the city of Carthage with salt after defeating it in the Third Punic War (146 BC) to prevent the city from ever flourishing again. Whether that happened or not is up for debate, but the idea of sowing the land with salt as a punishment for its inhabitants was widely known. Therefore, if we allow disobedience, carelessness, and indifference to rule our lives, we have become contaminated salt and have lost our worth.
The second verse introduces the “City upon a Hill”:
Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.
— Matthew 5:14
As “salt”, the Christian is to counteract the power of sin. As “light”, we are to illuminate or make visible. Our lives are to be an ongoing witness to the reality of Christ’s presence in our lives. When we worship God with pure hearts, when we love others as ourselves, when we do good without growing weary, we are shining lights. It is important, however, to know it is not our light, but the reflection of the Light of the world, Jesus Himself, people will see in u
The later verses refer to not hiding a lamp under a bushel which also occurs in Luke 8:16–18.
Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.
— Matthew 5:15–16
The key idea of the parable is that “Light is to be revealed, not concealed.” The light here has been interpreted as referring to Jesus or to His message or to the believer’s response to that message. Jesus quotes a pessimistic proverb on how the rich get richer and the poor keep losing even the little they have. He later denounces the saying in the next parable in Mark, which alludes to Joel 3:13 in assuring that God’s judgment on the ruling powers will come and holds out revolutionary hope to those resigned to thinking nothing will ever change.
Out of these four verses one of the most famous phrases is the introduction to the “City upon a Hill.” Since colonial times, this phrase has been linked to the colonies which would become the United States. In modern context, it is used in United States politics to refer to America acting as a “beacon of hope” for the world. This scripture was cited at the end of Puritan John Winthrop’s lecture or treatise, “A Model of Christian Charity” delivered on March 21, 1630 at Holyrood Church in Southampton before his first group of Massachusetts Bay colonists embarked on the ship Arbella to settle Boston. Winthrop warned his fellow Puritans their new community would be “as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us” meaning, if the Puritans failed to uphold their covenant with God, then their sins and errors would be exposed for all the world to see: “So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world”. Winthrop’s lecture was forgotten for nearly 200 years until the Massachusetts Historical Society published it in 1838. It remained an obscure reference for more than another century until Cold War era historians and political leaders made it relevant to their time crediting Winthrop’s text as the foundational document of the idea of American exceptionalism.
On 9 January 1961, President-Elect John F. Kennedy quoted the phrase during an address delivered to the General Court of Massachusetts. On November 3, 1980, Ronald Reagan referred to the same event and image in his Election Eve Address “A Vision for America”. Reagan was reported to have been inspired by author Manly P. Hall and his book, The Secret Destiny of America, which alleged a secret order of philosophers had created the idea of America as a country for religious freedom and self-governance. Reagan would reference this concept through multiple speeches notably again in his January 11, 1989, farewell speech to the nation. U.S. Senator Barack Obama also referred to the topic in his commencement address on June 2, 2006 at the University of Massachusetts Boston. In 2016, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney incorporated the idiom into a condemnation of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign:
His domestic policies would lead to recession; his foreign policies would make America and the world less safe. He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president, and his personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill.
During the 2016 presidential race, Texas Senator Ted Cruz used the phrase during his speech announcing the suspension of his campaign. President Barack Obama also alluded to President Ronald Reagan’s use of the phrase during his speech at the Democratic National Convention the same year, as he proposed a vision of America in contrast to that of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Sadly, the United States under Trump and the Republican Party (or the Hypocrite Party as I’ve begun calling them, as it seems much more descriptive of their beliefs) has moved away from being the salt of the earth, the light of the world, and the city upon a hill as they destroy the foundations of the United States.
While reading about “Salt and Light” for this post, I was struck by the belief that to ‘be salt’ means to deliberately seek to influence the people in one’s life by showing them the unconditional love of Christ through good deeds. And yet, as I was researching further, I read numerous articles about how this did not pertain to the LGBTQ+ community. Those so-called religious scholars claimed these verses should be used to condemn homosexuality. For them, “the unconditional love of Christ” only pertains to those who believe in their own hateful views. They can’t have it both ways.
Jesus warns against hypocrisy in what are known as the “Woes of the Pharisees,” a list of criticisms by Jesus against scribes and Pharisees recorded in the Gospels of Luke 11:37–54 and Matthew 23:1–39. The Woes illustrate the differences between inner and outer moral states. In the New Testament, the Pharisees are people who place the letter of the law above the spirit of the law (Mark 2:3–28, 3:1–6). In the Gospels, Jesus is often shown as being critical of Pharisees. The Pharisees, like Jesus, believed in the resurrection of the dead, and in divine judgment. They advocated prayer, almsgiving, and fasting as spiritual practices. The argument over the “Spirit of the Law” vs. the “Letter of the Law” was part of early Jewish dialogue as well.
If we want to follow the spirit and the letter of the law, then we must believe what Jesus tells us. Christians must “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” Jesus doesn’t allow us to exclude anyone. We are all God’s children, and we all receive God’s love. So, I will end with this verse:
Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and everyone that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.
— 1 John 4:7-8