Jesus is talking about things that are absolutely essential – in small quantities – salt and light. (If you really want to know about salt, read Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History – it will tell you everything!) We do not regard salt very highly, yet in the ancient world it was so precious that our word salary comes from the Latin word sal for salt – for Roman soldiers were paid in salt. We should prize it still, for without consuming salt our bodes cannot function and we die. Likewise light is essential and even a tiny light in a large space makes a difference. Jesus was paying those listening a great compliment, for he addresses them all – ‘you are all salt’ is the literal translation. So, they – and we- are absolutely essential – but possibly not in the big, flashy ways we imagine. Rather we play small but essential roles, bringing flavour, showing the way and that is where our focus should be.
These verses are among the ‘hard sayings’ of Jesus which might lead us to despair if we did not hold them together in the grace of God and the power of Christ and the Holy Spirit. For how, we might wonder, is it possible for even exceptional holy people, never mind ordinary folk, to keep such demanding standards? How can this sit with the same Jesus who says that ‘my yoke is easy’ and embodies mercy and transformative forgiveness? How is this righteousness less burdensome than that of the Pharisees and others?
Part of the answer to the seeming harshness is to remember that this is characteristic of Jesus’ Semitic style of teaching in which he uses various dramatic means to wake up, challenge and provoke the response of his hearers. Here the standards of righteousness are indeed set high for they relate to God and divine perfection. It is thus crucial to hold them together with the centrality of God’s grace. Jesus is saying that no one can reach God’s standards by their own efforts and that outward achievements of restraint are not enough. What is required is a full turning of hearts and lives to God so that divine grace can help transform thought as well as deed, and lead to a greater righteousness we alone cannot attain.
It is not for nothing that the Transfiguration story concludes our Epiphany lectionary for it is in many ways the greatest revelation of the purpose of the coming of the Light of Christ. Indeed Orthodox Christianity has particularly valued it as revealing our ultimate destiny, as, like Jesus, we are gradually transfigured by sharing in Christ’s light. We are thus lifted up into a mountain view of the Christian life before we begin the journey through Lent, enlivened to continue our pilgrimage even in its struggles.
Within Uniting Church founding traditions, such an understanding of Transfiguration resonates powerfully with the teaching and spirituality of the Wesleys, who encouraged us to dwell in the light of Christ as part of the process of sanctification worked in us by the Holy Spirit. As we are transfigured we also aid the transfiguration of the world and, like Moses and Elijah before us, act as fellow guides and companions for other pilgrims on the Way.
Jesus’ teaching in these verses can seem to sit oddly with public prayers and ceremonies, particularly on this day, and the giving and receiving monetary and other offerings in our worship gatherings. If we are here commanded to pray, give, and fast, in secret, why do we act so differently in our usual common life? As with Jesus’ teaching elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount, the key point is surely the intent rather than the acts themselves. After all, feeling self-satisfied for hiding away from others and being pious is also not what Jesus had in mind. What Jesus is speaking out against is the use of religion for self-aggrandisement and ego-massaging. What Ash Wednesday does is to offer a vital opportunity to let go of all of that and to allow the Holy Spirit to burn away all that keeps us from God, thereby renewing us to rise again, like a phoenix. It reminds us that any practices we continue, or adopt, in Lent rest and prosper in that divine grace and not through our own works, done for ourselves or others.
Jesus enters the wilderness only after having received baptism and heard himself named as the beloved of God. This is the pattern many of us recognise from our own journeys of faith – first, the call, and then the doubts. Traditionally the temptations in their fable-like form have been understood to be about rejecting material comfort, power and idolatry. Yet behind them we can recognise a more fundamental temptation that occurs the moment we perceive, even if only for a moment, that we are the beloved of God. That perception puts everything else in our lives in the shade. We find ourselves no longer the most important player in our own story. This frightens our ego, and seeking to regain control, we scurry back to familiar things – physical comforts, power plays and indeed anything that may look like God, without being God. The invitation of Lent is to stay a little longer, just as we are, in the loving gaze of God and know ourselves beloved.
These reflections were prepared by Rev. Dr Jo Inkpin of Pitt Street Uniting Church