Within 150 years of the start of Christianity, Tertullian who was a major theologian in early Christianity is able to taunt the Roman Emperor with these words ‘We are but of yesterday, and yet we have filled all the places that belong to you — cities, islands, forts, towns, exchanges; the military camps themselves, tribes, town councils, the palace, the senate, the market-place; we have left you nothing but your temples’. One characteristics that marked the early believers was their willing desire to die for one another, to share in community, and to live in holiness as against the culture of its day. To put it simply, they where salt and light abiding in the principles of the sermon on the mount.
Jesus said to his followers in Mathew 5:13-16, ‘You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost it tastes, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled upon under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to the whole house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven’ .
Despite the increase in technology and the optimism of the 19th century writers, humanity today is still morally corrupt and its only remedy lies in those whom it has been given the charge to be salt and light. History is full of examples of Christians who have influenced social change in a degrading society and despite being a minority the ‘Clapham sect’, led by Wilberforce where able to turn the tide of slavery to become eventually outlawed in the British society. Jesus, in the text above has called his followers to be salt and light, to permeate society and influence it for good and for God. But what does it mean to be salt and light?
Salt and light is found in almost every household and thus will be familiar to all. Most would have known of their practical usefulness and these were the images that Jesus chose to use to elucidate the influence He wanted his disciples to have in the world. Light is to shine into darkness and salt to prevent decay. Jesus implies that 1. The world is dark. ‘This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil’, John 3:19. And 2. The world is decaying. ‘But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power’ 2 Timothy 3:1-5.
Although the world is dark and decaying, Jesus charges his disciples that they are to be its light and salt. The pronouns in the text are emphatic; if you are a believer in Jesus, you are the light and salt of the earth, there is no two ways about it, either you are or you are not. Jesus has said to you that you are to be salt and light but what good is salt if it has lost its tastes? It is good for nothing, in fact it becomes a pollution, it corrupts the food and it is to be thrown out. So it is with Christians who have lost their saltiness, who have lost the distinctiveness of their true nature and now they cause the name of Christ to be blasphemed. Also what good is a light if it is hidden? It is no good at all, for the room still remains in darkness and those inside who need the light will continue to stumble and fall.
Therefore, it is no good for us to complain about the darkness in the world, to complain about the poverty, the injustice, degrading morality, poor health, breakdowns in families, isolation, homosexuality, and etc… Jesus did not call us to complain about the darkness but to permeate it with salt and light as a church and as individuals. We are to let our light shine so that the society may see it, or those in our vicinity and cause them to give glory to our heavenly Father. You may be one, like me, who feels the distress of the degrading society and wishes to permeate it with light and salt but knows not how. The preceding verses of the beatitudes defines the character of the Christian in the world and the Christian who lives accordingly will be salt and light to the world.
For example, if your Christian life is marked with mercy, purity and righteousness, these traits will not go unseen but many will see your light and wonder how remarkably different it is from the rest. Or if your life is marked by a thirst for righteousness, that is by every thing right, then you will look at the poor in your society and not neglect them, you will fight injustice and mourn for those are lonely or bereaved and seek to comfort them. The following verses after vs. 13-16 also displays how the Christian ought to live. The Christian is to love their enemies. Who are the despised in your community, the outlaws, the hated and those whom people love to hate. How remarkable it would be for the Christian to declare their love for them and thus your light will be as that on a hill.
So, if society is tasteless in the sight of God, to us is given as Calvin puts it ‘the salt which imparts a relish to them but if we have lost our saltiness where will we find the salt to cure the situation’. Although it may not be easy to be light and salt it is also not complicated for all it takes is for Jesus’ people to be like Jesus.
To conclude, here is a quote from Nikolai Berdyaev, "the sinfulness of human nature does not mean that social reforms and improvements are impossible. it only means that there can be no perfect and absolute social order..before the transfiguration of the world". There's therefore no room for Christian pessimism but Jesus optimism. The early Christians transformed their society by permeating every aspect of it, the same goes for us in the 21st century if we are to see the light shine in the decaying darkness.