SCRIPTURE STUDY: Worthless Witness – Christianity Without Contrast
There is a short—but incredibly rich—passage which immediately follows the Beatitudes in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew 5:13-16 holds several familiar sayings of Jesus, using the metaphors of salt, light and a city set on a mountain. The essence of the passage, which really sets up the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, is that following Jesus is about offering a contrast to the dominant culture or society in which we live. It is the assertion that Jesus’ followers—the Church—are to be a “contrast” society.
The Beatitudes already are leading us in that direction, but it is in Matthew 5:13-16 that this becomes really straightforward. What is most striking about the Beatitudes is how they go against conventional wisdom and basic religious assumptions, both of Jesus’ time and of our own. Now Jesus directs his words to those closest to him, using the second person “you” for emphasis: “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to thrown out and trampled underfoot.”
What is salt? What does salt do? Salt adds flavor; its primary property relates to taste. That which is bland can be spiced up with a little salt. We add salt to give flavor to something. In essence, we use salt because it provides a contrast; it adds flavor. The implication for those who follow Jesus is that we are here on earth to provide a contrast to the world in which we live. And if we, as those who call themselves Christians, don’t provide that contrast? Then Jesus states clearly that we are no good to his mission, we are useless to him. Individually and communally, if our witness and way of life in the world fails to offer a contrast to the ways things are in the larger society, then what does our Christianity matter? The Church’s purpose here is to provide a contrast to the larger culture; if it does not, that it has no value at all.
If we think about this for a second we know that it is deeply, profoundly true. We live in a culture that celebrates rugged individualism, an individualism that states “me first,” “I’m number one,” “it’s all about taking care of me and mine.” But the gospels tell us over and over again that we are to care for others, even at a sacrifice to ourselves, that the common good and especially the rights of the most vulnerable (the widow, the stranger, and the orphan) are to be preeminent in our society. The gospel tells us that we are to love our enemies, but our society says bomb our enemies. Our society encourages us to worship and long for power, status, and privilege – and to find our security in money; the gospels tell us to seek to be the least ones, the ones who serve, the ones who find their security in God and each other, in relationships. The Church is supposed to be that society of people who are living these things out—in contrast to the larger society that surrounds us.
Two other things stand out in this passage. We need to remember that this passage comes on the heels of Jesus’ promise to his disciples that they will be persecuted, that they will stand in the line of those prophets who took to task the kings of Israel and Judah and suffered for it. So when Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden,” the disciples must have had mixed feelings. Any thoughts that they had about hanging low, trying to do their thing under the radar have just been addressed. Jesus first tells them they’re salt, now they’re light (another metaphor for contrast) and finally that they are a city of a mountain, nice and high where everyone can see them. Through the values of the Beatitudes and the promise of persecution, he has assured them that if they follow him, they will find that they will not “fit in” in this world. But not only will they not “fit in”—they also are being told that they must “stand out.” Their contrast is not just for themselves; it is for the world. So essentially he tells them: “You won’t fit in, and you’re going to have to stand out.” Any hopes of quietly following Jesus and muting or avoiding the persecution part have just gone out the window. The Church will be that city on the mountain, exposed for all to see, for both good and bad. Verses 15 and 16 echo too that the Church’s witness is not for itself, but for others, for all.
This idea of the Church as a contrast society seems to me to be at the heart of the crisis we find with our Church today. We longer look or act differently. We are just like our neighbors. There is little about being a Christian that seems to separate us out today from the society around us. There is little to no contrast between the Church and the larger culture in which we live. This is certainly not how it was for the early Church, and we find that it certainly is not how it is for those segments of the Church throughout history which have taken Jesus most seriously, and therefore conflicted with the societies in which they found themselves: from anti-slavery abolitionists in the 1700s and 1800s, to the black churches of the civil rights movements; from St. Francis and his movement which eschewed the trappings of power and wealth which gripped the church of his day to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church in Germany which resisted Hitler’s rule; to the churches of Latin America that speak out for the poor and suffer martyrdom to the U.S. churches today shielding and protecting undocumented workers.
But for the the majority of Christians in our nation today, the contrast is simply not there.
As the great philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote in the 1800s, critiquing the Church of his time for the very same thing: “There was a time when one could almost be afraid to call oneself a disciple of Christ, because it meant so much. Now one can do it with complete ease, because it means nothing at all.”