13“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. 14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Translation: You are the salt of the land, but if the salt had lost its taste, in what will it become salty? It is good for nothing, except to be thrown out to be tread down by human beings. You are the light of the world. A city setting upon a mountain is not able to be concealed, neither do they light a candle and set it under the bushel, but upon the candlestick, and it beams brightly to all the ones in the house. So let your light shine radiantly before the people that they might see your good works and might give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
Do not suppose that I came to loosen the law or the prophets. I have not come to loosen, but to make full. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot will pass away from the law until all might be accomplished. Therefore, if anyone might loosen one of the least of these commandments, and might teach the people so, that one will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever might do and teach, that one will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that if your justice does not abound more than the scribes and pharisees, you may surely not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Background and situation: Matthew seems to have composed this section from several locations. Part of verse 13 has a parallel in Mark 9: 50. The "city on the hill" passage (5:14) appears also in the Gospel of Thomas (32)--and the Oxyrhynchus papyri!--as does the lamp hid under a bushel (33), also paralleled in Mark 4:21 and Luke 8:16 and 11:33. Verse 18--"not one letter"--has a parallel in Luke 16:17.
The rest appears to be Special Matthew. That would include both "you are" passages, i.e. salt and light, the exhortation to "let your light shine" in v. 16, possibly v. 19, and the entirety of v. 20.
The passage appears in the Sermon on the Mount as the first remark of Jesus after the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are the soaring overture. We now move into the speech itself.
Salt and Light: Jesus begins on a high if somewhat mystifying note. He announces to his disciples and the crowd that they are the "salt of the land."
Salt has been used at least since 6000 BC. It was so important that it was sometimes used as a medium of exchange. Our word "salary" is derived from "salt." If one traded salt for a poorly-performing slave, one might say the slave was "not worth his salt."
Most commentators will tell you that salt never loses its taste, but that is not quite true. The chemical impurities of salt from the Dead Sea, the likely source for most salt in Galilee, could cause it to decompose and, indeed, "lose its taste" (5:13).
Jesus does not, you'll notice, state this in future tense. It's not that the followers of Jesus will some day become the "salt of the land." They are already that right now. As such, their words and deeds have import. They matter. Like salt, the followers of Jesus do not necessarily draw attention to themselves so much as they spice up everything around them.
"You are the light of the world." Matthew had previously cited the prophet Isaiah to say that "the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light" (4:16). This clearly referred to Jesus himself.
Now Jesus says that his listeners are the "light of the world." His mission is now their mission. His words and deeds are their words and deeds. Jesus has not yet gone into detail about the specifics of this mission, but the Sermon on the Mount goes from here until 7:28 and he will have ample opportunity to do so.
This mission is public--it happens in the open, like a city set on a hill--and it benefits everyone. Even its candlelight "beams brightly" to all in a house. In fact, the only thing that can really mess it up is the active attempt to snuff it out. Or, to put it a different way, the light can be extinguished only by ignoring the needs of others for "light" and insisting on one's own preference that everyone sit in the dark.
In the time of Jesus, and before, the Torah was sometimes seen as "salt" for Israel. Also, the rabbis and religious authorities were, themselves, sometimes referred to as the "lights" of Israel. Now, Matthew tells us, via Jesus, the followers of Jesus are "the salt of the earth" and "the light of the world." For the Torah-minded Matthew, this is a stunning statement.
Law: Despite all that, the law is stalwart. Jesus does not negate the law. It remains intact. Nevertheless, J. P. Meier notes that the word "fulfill" is usually used by Matthew in reference to the prophets. Says Meier:
That Mt viewed even the Law's relation to Christ in terms of prophetic fulfillment (my emphasis) is clear from Mt's reworking of a Q-saying in 11:13: "For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John...Mt is turning the Jewish canon of Law and prophets on its head. The touchstone becomes prophesy, and the Law must be interpreted in analogy with prophecy. (p. 46)
The law points to Jesus, just as the prophets did, says Matthew. As Jesus "fulfills" (plerosai) prophesy, he also "fulfills" the law. Fulfillment means that the cup is not only full but "over-flows". The law and prophets are not only completed, but the Jesus event exceeds them.
"Not one iota" of the law is abrogated--an "iota" refers to the smallest Greek letter (which, technically speaking, is pronounced YO-ta). "Not one stroke of a letter"--the "stroke" is the smallest part of a letter that distinguishes it from another letter. Early rabbis said that not a "stroke" of the Torah could be changed.
There are two "until" clauses here--"until heaven and earth pass away," and "until all might be accomplished." Eos ("until") marks the time of an action up to the time of another action. Something is in effect until something else takes effect. The law is sacrosanct, in other words, but also limited.
That "new action" that "until" points toward will happen when "all is accomplished", or, to put it another way, when "all (panta) has "come to be" (genetai). Genetai is associated with creation. It has the sense of beginning, or, in this case, new beginning. In other words, the law is in full force until the Christ event is completed. That is when "all has come to be." Law, prophets, and all things are fulfilled.
See the Lukan parallel in 16:17. Matthew has clearly added the phrase "until all has come to be" to Q. His point seems to be that the end of the world--heaven and earth passing away--is not necessarily a bad thing. The key eschatological event, which re-arranges the entire cosmos, is the death and resurrection of Jesus. That fulfills "all." Heaven and earth passing away means that the deck is cleared for the New Creation.
Jesus then shifts emphasis from himself as teacher to human teachers. Any of your teachers who slack on the law, even the least of it, is "least" in the kingdom of heaven. Conversely, those who do teach all of the law will be called "great." (Note that both are still in.)
What can toss you out? "For I say to you that if your justice does not abound more than the scribes and pharisees, you may surely not enter into the kingdom of heaven." (In almost every case, dikaios should be translated as "justice" and not "righteousness." It's not that it's wrong; it's that it mislead. For Matthew, justice and righteousness are the same thing. In our world, however, righteousness is usually associated with something else, quite often outward piety, which Matthew directly condemns.)
This does not mean ratcheting up our piety to a pitch higher than that of the pharisees. It is justice that must abound, and more than the scribes and pharisees are able to muster. Since the scribes and pharisees are grossly unjust, fortunately, this is not that difficult. Matthew devotes a whole chapter (23) to condemning both scribes and pharisees, and gets regular digs at both throughout his book.
Image: Light of the World, Barbara Mitchell