Salt and Light (The Purpose of Christian Ethics)

The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book tentatively titled “Ethics; What happens when life gets messy and the rules aren’t enough?”  I’ve just finished the first draft of chapter two and have about seven more chapters to go.  With any luck I hope to release this book sometime in early 2015.  In the mean time, the second edition of “Meekonomics” is nearing completion, stay tuned for a new release information here in the coming weeks.

My best friend through high-school was a guy named Jason.  He and I were both a little nerdy and awkward.  You could say we were misfits with the whole high-school culture.  As a result we gravitated to one another.  But we were also very different in our upbringing and our outlook on life.  Jason was perhaps the first true atheist I ever encountered.  As a result over the course of about ten years he and I had some fairly lively debates about the meaning of “life the universe and everything.”  I introduced him to the Bible he introduced me to Dante, Nietzsche and Douglas Adams author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series of science fiction.

Since then life has taken us in very different directions.  Today Jason and I live quite literally on opposite sides of the world.  He teaches English in Japan, while I teach financial principles and write about economics and ethics in Canada.  But through the miracle of Facebook we have been able stay in touch.  Recently we were able to have a discussion about one of my favorite subjects; morality and the roll of Christianity in the developing world.

It started innocently enough with a comment I made regarding the place of ethics in the modern church.  One Saturday morning I posted the following quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to my Facebook page;

The Church has so far failed to master the social, economic, political, sexual and educational problems.  By her own guilt she has given offense, so that men are prevented from believing her message…  The dogmatically correct delivery of the Christian proclamation is not enough; nor are general ethical principles; what is needed is concrete instruction in the concrete situations…  In brief, the Church must offer solutions for the unsolved problems of the world, and thereby fulfill her mission and restore her authority.

As it turned out Jason was not the first to respond.  The first response I received was from a reader in the United States mid-west that I do not know personally.  This reader took offense to the notion that it is the churches job to offer any kind of solution to the world’s problems.  This reader is clearly someone who does not understand what Jesus is getting at in Matthew 5 or what the early church did with his teaching in Acts, but I’ll get to that later.  What followed was a lively debate that lasted a few hours.  This individual kept insisting that the only roll of the church is to proclaim the truth of salvation and convert the un-godly and I kept asking pointed questions about how we should go about doing that without taking it to the logical next step of “offering solutions for the unsolved problems of the world”, as Bonhoeffer put it.

Finally, late in the day, no doubt as a result of the time difference between Canada and Japan, Jason joined the conversation.  This is what he said;

Isn’t the primary issue here one of credibility? Sure church groups do great good. But then, so do many secular institutions. The difference is that churches claim moral authority.

Credibility and moral authority, strong words but essentially what Jason said is that even though we do good things, we’ve lost our ability to show the world that we are any different than the rest.  One of the biggest complaints against the modern church which most often comes from moderate atheists like Jason has always been, “I’m a good person, why should I bother?  When it gets right down to it, we aren’t really the much different“.

But the purpose of Christian Ethics is to be different so that we can affect change in the very nature of the world around us.  When we receive criticism like Jason’s it shows that as a community we have utterly failed in our mission.

Salt and Light

And so it is with that in mind that I would like to turn our attention back to the Sermon on the Mount.  After spending the first few verses getting his listeners to turn away from a legalistic interpretation of the scriptures Jesus begins to lay out a plan for the way in which we are to interact with the world.  But before he gets into any specifics he first lays out what amounts to the “why” of it all.

What is the purpose of developing a Christian Ethic? Why go to all this effort?  This is what Jesus says;

 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. [Jesus, Matthew 5:13-16]

Salt is essential for all animal life.

For years we’ve been warned of the dangers of having too much salt in our diets.  Ailments like high blood pressure, heart disease and kidney failure are all linked to ingesting too much salt.  But in the right quantities salt helps nerves and muscles to function correctly and is the main factor in regulating fluid content in the body.  Too little salt in your diet and you will experience fatigue, weakness and nausea.  These symptoms are easily dismissed as a result of other lifestyle concerns but if the root cause is too little salt and the situation persists the symptoms can evolve into confusion, aggression, dizziness, seizures, coma and eventually – death.

So I’ll say it again, salt is essential for all animal life.

Salt is so essential in fact that many ancient cultures link the development of their modern economies to the production of salt.  The mining, refining and trading of salt can be traced back over 6000 years and in many areas including Europe, The Middle East and China, trade in salt is considered to have been the first “currency”.

In ancient times and right up to the beginning of the 20th century salt was used as a preservative for everything.  Before mass refrigeration, curing in a Salt Brine was the only way to keep meat and vegetables from becoming unfit for human consumption after more than a few days.  Salt is still used as a preservative today although as a mineral it has far more, less obvious industrial uses such as the production of plastics, fertilizer, and household detergents.  The fact is, less than 6% of all salt mined today is used for human consumption.

In Jesus day there were essentially two types of salt on the market.  There was the high grade pure Sodium Chloride, pulled out of the Sea, that only the rich people could afford and there was the cheap stuff that was mined out of the ground all over The Middle East.

Common salt was a compound containing several other minerals including Magnesium and Gypsum.   In order to get the valuable Sodium Chloride out you would have to place a quantity of it in water and boil off the impurities.  As a result, people would buy large quantities of this stuff and pile it up in their yards.  Whenever they needed salt for canning fruits and vegetables or to cure their meat they would go out, fill a large pot, add water and boil off the sodium chloride.

Now because people purchased this cheap salt in large quantities and kept it outside, exposed to the weather, the valuable sodium chloride would leach out over time.  Rain, wind and evaporation would cause the salt to “lose its saltiness”.  When this happened it was more gypsum than salt and the only redeeming quality it had left was the fact that it would harden in a smooth surface that was easy to walk on.   “Un-salty” salt became the first concrete that people would spread around their yards to create little pathways between buildings and up to their door steps.

With that in mind the way in which Jesus describes his followers in Matthew 5:13 takes on much deeper meaning.  A meaning that his original listeners would have recognized immediately for what it was.  If the salt pile loses its saltiness, the key component of what it’s there for, it is worthless.  Salt that has lost its’ saltiness is only good to be trampled underfoot and used as pavement.

Jesus hardly gives that idea enough time to sink in before jumping to a new analogy.  But this one is a bit easier for our modern minds to figure out.

“You are the light of the world, but who lights a lamp and puts it under a bowl?” He asks.

The image is absurd when you think about it.  Who turns on a light and then covers it up?  As the lyrics from the 1970s musical “Godspell” put  it;

You are the light of the world!
But if that light is under a bushel,
It’s lost something kind of crucial.

Given the first century context, without electricity, lighting a lamp meant lighting a fire so covering a lit lamp not only made the light impossible to use it extinguished it.  Jesus is saying here that if you do not show the world that you are different, and be prepared to explain why, the change that he has started in you will die.  You need to stand out, be different and allow people to see what you do so that the whole world will be blessed by your the good deeds, to the glory of God.  He will later warn against doing things so that you are seen by men,[Matthew 6:1, 5] your motivation is not so you will be seen but if you are following Jesus with a pure heart you will stand out and trying to cover it up only serves to sabotage the work he is using you to accomplish.

It’s disingenuous, hypocritical, false humility and the world sees right through it anyway.  I’ll get into this flat, lifeless form of Christianity in more detail later but the point here is that a ethical life of faithful Christ-following cannot help but be a beacon of hope to the rest of the world.  It is “a city on a hill” that cannot be hidden.

Salt and light in the context of ethics then becomes a discussion of being set apart for a purpose, accepting that purpose and living it out.  Because otherwise you are like salt that is no longer salty or a light that has been extinguished.  You are no longer fulfilling your purpose.  You are useless.

In the opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus turns his listeners around and get’s them to face him.  It’s not about law, it’s about something entirely different, what that is he hasn’t told them yet, and before he gets to that he makes it clear that it is going to be there mission to show the world what this difference is.

You are the salt of the earth.  You are the preservative agent that will transform the world and keep it from rotting.  You are the light that will provide guidance and safety on a journey toward me.  Without you, without your salt and your light, the world will rot away and wander aimlessly in dark.  It is your job, the job of the Church, the job of all Christ-followers is to be salt and light in a rotting and darkened world.

That is the purpose of Christian Ethics and the purpose of Christ-following.

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