Our gospel reading for today is part two of the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus preached to his disciples at the beginning of his ministry in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew understood the importance of Jesus as rabbi, or teacher, during his mission on earth. Jesus wanted to establish an identity for his followers, so that we know who we are and who Jesus expects us to be. We can’t be effective disciples unless we are willing to hear, understand and believe the message that Jesus brought to the world. The sermon begins with the Beatitudes, a reminder that we are blessed. It is comforting to know that when we are broken in spirit, or when we are in mourning we will be surrounded by God’s mercy. It is encouraging for us to know that when we are merciful and strive to be peacemakers those efforts will be recognized and supported by God. But being blessed also means that we are challenged to “hunger after righteousness,” a tall order in a world that often ignores or works against the ethical and moral call for righteousness for all.
Now that Jesus has established our identity and explained the meaning of our blessedness, he tells us what our actions should be as a result of being blessed. In both Hebrew scripture and the New Testament, faith in God comes with a mandate to act out that faith in a way that is meaningful in the world and will change the circumstances of those whom God favors – the poor, the hungry, the sick, the marginalized and the outcast.
Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything but is thrown out and trampled under-foot.” Although it has a bad reputation now for contributing to high blood pressure (when too much is consumed) salt is still necessary for life. For centuries salt was an important preservative and the most common way of flavoring food, often masking the fact that the food was not fresh. Jesus warns us not to let our message lose its flavor, or allow that which is bad to overpower it.
Jesus tells us, “You are the light of the world…No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.” He goes on to issue the mandate that we state in baptism, “…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” In the Gospel of John, Jesus is the light of the world, a light that no darkness can overcome. Here in Matthew, we learn that we, too, are responsible for shining the bright light of God’s message of compassion, mercy and justice in the darkness of a world that so often does not recognize that message. God is the source of the light, incarnated in Jesus, but that light has been ignited in each one of us.
Jesus then makes an interesting affirmation – he tells us that he did not to come to abolish Hebrew scripture, but to fulfill it. He says the message of the prophets, the guidance of the Torah, are still foundational teachings for us. In our first reading for today, the prophet Isaiah shares the words of God with the people. They have returned from the exile in Babylon and are struggling with how to be faithful as they try to re-establish their home in Israel. They are uncertain about what to do, and that uncertainty causes anxiety, something we can all relate to. The people follow rituals such as fasting, but wonder if God is even noticing them. Although God does not imply that such rituals are meaningless, God notes that without action, the rituals are empty. To fast just for the sake of fasting has no positive effect on the world, which is what God is all about.
Through the prophet Isaiah, God tells the people that the way to get God’s attention is not just in the practice of religious rituals, but by following up on those rituals with actions that promote the intentions of God for the world. God wants us to “loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the throngs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke.” He insists that we share our bread with the hungry, and offer shelter to the homeless poor, to see that those who need it have clothing. We are to do these righteous actions proudly, not trying to hide them from those who might not approve. God goes further and tells us that if we stand up for righteousness, then our light “shall rise in the darkness.” Furthermore, we can be encouraged because God will continually guide us, we will be strong, like a garden that flourishes with a steady supply of fresh spring water.
Years ago, Bishop Stephen Bouman established the closing words of this reading as the mission statement of the Metropolitan New York Synod. The words that brought such encouragement and comfort to the people of Israel who had returned from the exile became our mandate, “Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”
Jesus affirms the teaching of the Torah and the prophets, and offers the blessings of discipleship, but insists that it does not stop there. As has always been true, from the first covenant God made with God’s people, blessing brings responsibility. We know who we are, but what difference does that make? We can draw some parallels in everyday life- we are blessed to be parents, but that means we have the awesome responsibility of raising our children to be compassionate, merciful, just and righteous. We may be given positions of leadership, but we are not to abuse our power but use it to establish God’s message in whatever setting we have been given authority.
Jesus insists that just knowing is not enough. We may have a lot of knowledge about who we are and what God wants us to do, but knowledge without action is what contributes to all the evils in our world. Sexism, racism, fascism, totalitarianism, ostracism of the marginalized, oppression of the poor and powerless, and overlooking those who are hungry and lacking the basic needs that sustain healthy living. Jesus understands that it is easier to conform to the world, to be complacent about injustice, to hope someone else will take up the responsibilities God has given us. But that is not what God needs from us. Matthew’s gospel sets the high standards of discipleship that Jesus demands right in the beginning. The rest of the gospel will help us to understand them better, but the challenge is issued upfront. Hungering after righteousness is not easy, and implementing it in the world is even harder. But ultimately, being such a faithful disciple of God in Jesus should be our way of being in the world that God has blessed us with. Amen.