Previously in the first part of this series, we directed our attention to the practical relevance of the metaphorical reference to salt in the Sermon on the Mount.
There is one final note to consider regarding this particular representation of the quality of Christ's followers.
In traditional Jewish rabbinical contemplation, salt is often emblematic of covenantal intentions and actions, and is also indicative of wisdom. For instance, when the apostle Paul exhorts in Colossians 4:6 that our speech should be filled with grace "as though seasoned with salt," his statement may be derived from such a premise, whereby we should be emphasizing our covenant relationship with God and between ourselves as members of the same Body, sharing God's grace and wisdom.
Interestingly, the word in Matthew 5:13 that is often translated from the Greek as "become tasteless" or "lose its saltiness" literally means to "become foolish or less wise" and is based on the same Greek word from which we get the modern English word "moron." Thus, in being salt, Christians are meant to demonstrate Godly wisdom, not worldly foolishness.
Immediately following this assertion in the sermon that blessed believers are halite or salt of the earth, Jesus employs another vivid instance of symbolism that claims his followers are the light of the world. The Greek word translated "world" in this context refers to the world at large — that is, not merely the physical planet we live on, but the entire sphere of human affairs. Interestingly, we derive our English word "cosmos" from this Greek term, and its innate implication indicates an ordered system such as all of creation.
According to scientific analysis, the fundamental components of the cosmos – including photons of which all light is comprised – emerged from the initial expansion of the singularity representing the beginning of the universe. The
primordial state of the universe was somewhat "chaotic"; in particular, the temperature would have been extremely high (1032 degrees Kelvin) and stable atoms did not exist. At this point, the universe was extremely dense and, in a sense, "dark" or opaque to photons of the wavelengths associated with visible light.
Eventually, the universe cooled sufficiently to permit stable matter to form and photons to roam freely. It is fascinating, and perhaps profound, to note that visible light came about as the result of the universe becoming more ordered. Thus, the outcome is what is alluded to in Genesis 1:3-4.
One of the distinctly paradoxical qualities of light is that is possesses no mass but does exhibit momentum (that is, energy and motion). Geniuses like Albert Einstein helped us question our ideas about the substance and form of light and its relationship with its environment.
In the television series "Star Trek: Voyager," the titular starship’s primary physician is a highly advanced computer program that manifests visually as a sophisticated holographic projection in human form identified as the
Emergency Medical Hologram or EMH. (In production terms, this is an extension of the rather charming "Star Trek" show concept of cutting-edge hologram technology that often serves as significant plot devices or catalysts.)
While initially activated as an emergency measure, the EMH actually goes on to function as a regular member of the crew, and part of the ongoing story in the show is his development into a "fully fleshed out" individual with concerns, desires, and emotions, ultimately to be treated as a real person and not merely as something insubstantial. The notion of "solid light" seems fanciful and fascinating, but light does in fact interact with solid matter in a manner unique to its idiosyncratic nature. In a particular episode, one of Voyager’s crew members questions the ability of holograms to substitute for physical matter.
PARIS: But a hologram is just a projection of light held in a magnetic containment field. There's no real matter involved. (The EMH slaps Paris. Paris feels the impact.)
EMH: Now, you hit me. (EMH adjusts settings on a
console. Paris's hand passes through the EMH's head.)
EMH: The magnetic containment field that creates the illusion of my body can be modulated to allow matter to pass through it or be stopped.
This leaves the crewman with little doubt that light can, in fact, physically affect its surroundings in a very concrete manner.
The significance of light in the Sermon on the Mount progresses in Matthew 5:14-16, where Jesus describes an intriguing portrayal of the effect of light by contrasting the impact of illumination at two different scales. A city on a hill is typically conspicuous, observable from a distance, and regarded by multitudes. During the night, even the limited external lighting of an ancient city might be freely visible to outsiders amidst the darkness of the encompassing landscape.
As Jesus indicates, such a prominent manifestation of labor and resourcefulness cannot, by its very nature, be concealed or obscured from sight.
At the same time, a candle or lamp that is intended to light the interior of a room is primarily for the benefit of its occupants. In this more confined, possibly more intimate setting, it would not make sense to ensconce such a source of perception and vision.
Jesus concludes this theme of radiant believers by insisting that the entire purpose of luminescence witnessed in both broad and modest capacities is so that those who observe "may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven." A city on a hill can evoke admiration for its builders from those who behold such a construct. Apparently, believers are likewise meant to draw positive attention from the culture at large that will provoke recognition and appreciation of the one who is building us into his divine edifice.
Furthermore, as active and fruitful followers, we also illuminate those in our immediate circle of influence, like a steady flame inside a windowless chamber, providing enlightenment and insight into the truth and reality of the Gospel message of redemption. In all that we do, whether extravagant or subtle, obtrusive or unpretentious, our goal is to attract those around us to God for his honor, to be a beacon of hope, compassion, acceptance, and restoration.
Like the EMH from Voyager, followers of Jesus are called to be "beings of light" who touch those around them in both literal, practical ways, as well as in profound and spiritual ways.