Matthew 5:13-29 and Isaiah 58:1-12
When you say the word Christian, do you mean your faith? Or do you mean your tribe?
Let me ask that question in a different way. When you hear the word Christian, do you see a person? Or do you see a way of life? Is it a noun? Or an adjective?
Light and salt. Two apparently simple things, but here in the sermon on the mount, Jesus has used them as symbols of great importance. In the world of the first century, light and salt were extremely important. In a fossil fuel-free world, the preservative salt and the oil lamp were as important to the ancients as electricity and cars are to us. This saying of Jesus is really a very simple concept, using light and salt as symbols for discipleship. Be like a lamp in darkness, says Jesus. Let your actions be seen, says Jesus. Let your worth, your intrinsic saltiness, be known through what you do.
When we turn to the Isaiah reading, we find a similar message, with the actions to be carried out explicitly named. Loose the bonds of injustice, undo the burdensome yoke on the poor, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; and clothe the naked.
Both readings highlight that there is a cognitive dissonance between what is said and what is actually done, and that there is a difference between defenders and doers of justice, and those who defend the status quo, even if they do make religious observance.
One of the reasons that I sang the Isaiah reading is because it would have been originally written by Isaiah as a poem or a song. From a literary perspective, this song follows the flow of most laments, which begin with sadness at the current state of affairs, seek God’s intervention and judgment to set things right, and end in praise of the God who will have done so much to deliver them.
This song of the prophet was likely never sung in worship. It would have been sung in the streets, literally, in public places, and not part of Judah’s formal worship. This was the prophet addressing the public world, not a group of religious insiders. The song was aimed at awakening true worship of God in people’s hearts, and inspiring them to change the way they lived and acted.
The prophets all railed against those who took advantage of the poor and disadvantaged members of society. Their anger and their songs of justice were not simply about the fact that wealthier people were dishonest leaders and traders squeezed the poor. The major problem for the prophets is that these same people who cheat and oppress are also the religious pillars of society, the respectable leaders who observed the feast days and all of the rituals, and who prayed to the Lord and who observed the Sabbath.
In the mind of Isaiah, this is rank hypocrisy. The people who substituted justice and righteousness with injustice and oppression were conveniently overlooking the deeper moral demands of their religious observance. They failed to make the connection between their religious belief and how one should live their life. Their salt had lost its saltiness and their lights were either extinguished or hidden. There was a cognitive dissonance between their religious practice and how they lived.
So how might this message of Isaiah and Jesus apply to us now? A good question, and an increasingly contentious one within the context of a Trump presidency in the United States and a climate-change denying government in Australia. I have never seen social media so full of passionate arguments for and against either Trump’s or our prime minister’s doing something about climate change. I have never seen such sophistry in how Christians are defending even the most racist and morally outrageous actions of either of these two governments. The cognitive dissonance present is truly breath taking, and Isaiah would be horrified.
What sort of Christianity defends rejecting people on the grounds of their ethnic origin and religious belief? What sort of Christianity infers an entire ethnic group are potential terrorists? What sort of Christianity explicitly rejects Jesus’ teaching in regard to the poor, the hungry and welcoming the stranger? What sort of Christian sells out to powerful commercial interests and allows the earth, God’s good creation, to be polluted, burnt and destroyed?
Brian McLaren, in The Secret Message of Jesus, talks about the salt and light imagery Matthew uses in this passage. He laments the empty cathedrals in Europe, and it seems to me that he is offering some answers to the questions I just posed:
What is going wrong in much of the stagnant, tense, or hyped-up religiosity of churches in my own country? Those questions take us beyond the scope of this book, but you can guess one of my main hunches: the Christian religion continues to sing and preach and teach about Jesus, but in too many places (not all!) it has largely forgotten, misunderstood, or become distracted from Jesus’ …message. When we drifted from understanding and living out his essential secret message of the kingdom, we became like flavorless salt or a blown-out lightbulb, so boring that people just walked away. We may have talked about going to heaven after we die, but not about God’s will being done on earth before we die. We may have pressured people to be moral and good or correct and orthodox to avoid hell after death, but we didn’t inspire them with the possibility of becoming beautiful and fruitful to heal the earth in this life. We may have instructed them about how to be a good Baptist, Presbyterian, Catholic, or Methodist on Sunday, but we didn’t train, challenge, and inspire them to live out the kingdom of God in their jobs, neighborhoods, families, schools, and societies between Sundays.
We may have tried to make people nice, quiet citizens of their earthly kingdoms and energetic consumers in their earthly economies, but we didn’t fire them up and inspire them to invest and sacrifice their time, intelligence, money, and energy in the revolutionary cause of the kingdom of God. No, too often, Karl Marx was right: we used religion as a drug so we could tolerate the abysmal conditions of a world that is not the kingdom of God. Religion became our tranquilizer so we wouldn’t be so upset about injustice. Our religiosity thus aided and abetted people in power who wanted nothing more than to conserve and preserve the unjust status quo that was so profitable and comfortable for them. (pp. 84-85).
McLaren goes on to say that the scribes and the Pharisees would have seen themselves as the guardians and paragons of goodness, morality, decency, justice, and fairness, all of which would be part of the complex Greek word, dikeosone meaning both justice and righteousness. It would be scandalous to suggest that the Scribes and Pharisees would not enter the kingdom. Jesus’ words would have been profoundly disruptive, and positively insulting to these religious leaders and to others who were similarly snug in their religious status. No wonder Jesus begins the sermon on the mount by affirming his fidelity to the Jewish law. No wonder he pledges that he has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. (p. 121).
I suspect McLaren is on to something here. Has the church become one of the moral and well-off leaders in society that the prophets and Jesus criticised? Do we pay more attention to Sunday worship than we do to the fact that our world is full of displaced, abandoned people? Are we more willing to put our church dollars towards band aid solutions than we are towards changing the structures that cause the problems of the poor and oppressed? Do we give more time to rhetorical debate in our meetings than we do to speaking out publically against war or social injustice? Do we exhibit a cognitive dissonance between what we pray, sing and say, and how we actually live?
The prophet exhorts us to turn away from violence, to share from our abundance, and to remove the structures that oppress. Neither he or Jesus charge us with coming up with likely reasons as to why ignoring such things is being faithful in our context. Isaiah then promises that our “light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly….” In subsequent chapters, Isaiah speaks of our ruins being rebuilt, our bones being strengthened, our breaches repaired, our streets restored, and ourselves becoming like well-watered gardens, laying the foundations for generations to come. Could there be a more beautiful ideal for us to strive for, for our world?
There will always be Christians who are eager to justify their prosperity, and who see (or more likely don’t see because they are invisible) the poor as a means to producing wealth. Such Christians see no need to change the underlying systemic flaws that cause inequality and injustice. Those who insist on pointing this out, are frequently rejected and scoffed at. The ‘economy’ is seen to be the dominant paradigm, and the lives of people or the environment that sustains us are not. We could add ‘security’ to this as well, where fear of the unknown and the alien justifies the harsh exclusionist policies of governments. We have allowed our politicians to exploit this fear, leading us to want to ourselves to build walls (real and metaphorical), making us afraid of one another and the “stranger” that God loves and who Jesus bids us to welcome into our lives.
Every Christ-following community, every disciple of Jesus, is faced, daily, with a choice. We can keep our heads down, and practice our faith in a way that requires little sacrifice or work, and that transforms very little. Or we can live an engaged faith, that pays attention to the injustice around us, calls out corruption and exploitation, and holds ourselves and our leaders accountable for how our decisions impact on the oppressed and vulnerable, and the planet that supports us. To return to our questions, the answer to what do you hear when you hear the word, Christian, surely it does not just describe a person or a tribe. Christian is a noun, and Christianity should be a bold and courageous and fearless way to live.
Of course, if we embrace this bold, courageous and fearless way to live, we will face the pain and inconvenience of getting involved, for we will have to actually do something about the issues we expose. We will find ourselves upsetting the peace, and being labelled “divisive”, “rabble-rousers” and other names by those who seek to maintain the status quo.
As a church, we must not fail to make the connection between religious belief and how one should live their life. We need to reclaim being light and salt, where our actions and way of life is what proclaims our discipleship and faith. It is only be such actions that the church may begin to reclaim its place as a good in society, instead of being seen as an obstruction to what is best for the world and as actually blocking, not shining the light. This is why Jesus stresses that those observing us need to ‘see’ our good deeds, not just ‘hear’ our good words.”
Right now, our world is riddled with people loudly claiming faith in a Jesus who would not actually be welcome in quite a few of the churches who profess to follow him. The challenge is how to respond to them, and those that support them in government, in a way that reflects the teaching of Jesus.
Like the prophets, we need to act and speak relevantly to our communities. We need to be like lights set upon a hill – beacons relaying hope and challenge from hilltop to hilltop – torch to torch, light to light- against the darkness. We need to lean into the danger of the times in which we live, and be prepared to support principles larger than our own lives. We need to be dissidents, truth-tellers, reformers and story tellers.
As Gandhi famously said: “Be the change you wish to see in the world”.
Written by Rev Elizabeth Raine
Elizabeth is minister at Tuggeranong Uniting, beginning her ministry here in December 2018.
Over the years, she has had a number of diverse and interesting placements, such as a school chaplaincy, a tenancy worker with UnitingCare, a congregational minister, a lecturer at UTC, a Presbytery minister, and as an Intentional Interim minister.More from Rev Elizabeth Raine