What Shines in This text?
We're in Epiphany which means appearing or shining. When you hear this text what shines? I think when you read this text in June what shines has little to do with the joy of the Incarnation of God the Son, little to do with a merry anything. What shines is law, law, law, and that's an unbearable light.
But perhaps you're misreading the text. Jesus says, and as almost always, the insert is wrong to put this in the past tense by prefacing it with "Jesus said." No, the risen, living Jesus speaks today into your ears, and He says, "You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world." These are not imperatives: You must be the salt of the earth; you shall be the light of the world. These are indicatives. They indicate what is not command what must be.
You don't feel so salty, do you? You feel rather bland and blase, and long for something to spice up your life. And if a black light can be said to shine, well then you do, but you don't feel very bright. Jesus doesn't indicate what His disciples are to feel but what they are. In Jesus, who was trampled under the feet of men because He was regarded as worthless, good for nothing, you are the salt of the earth. You preserve the world as salt does food. You preserve this earth from the destruction it richly deserves.
And though you don't feel or even see much light emanating from you, Jesus who is God in flesh and blood, and knows everything, says you are the light of this world. Jesus was put up on a cross in order to extinguish Him, to put out the Light of the world, but instead He shinned forth with forgiveness, life, and salvation (Hilary, ACC, IA, 93), and in your Baptism your light was lit. Now wherever you go you're like a human lantern lighting up the dark world around you.
So why don't the stupendous indicatives this text starts with shine forth for you? Why do you do what is unnatural for salt and light? Does salt worry about seasoning? Does light worry about shining? Do you pick up your salt shaker and wonder, "Will this be salty or not?" Do you turn on a light and expect it not to shine? In fact, if you turn on a light that you didn't know was out, you're surprised. You don't approach a light with even the faintest fear that it won't shine. So how come this doubt and the one about salt being salty are what shine from this text?
I'll tell you why: because not one jot or tittle of the Law will pass away. This memorable KJV expression is closer to the Greek, but the insert gets the meaning that shines with dark foreboding: "Not the smallest letter, nor the least stroke of a pen" will pass away until heaven and earth do. The Law that you must love God with all your heart, soul, and mind and your neighbor as yourself never times out or is cut down to a manageable size. God never says like parents do. "Well just eat a few more bites and that will be enough." God never says, "Just love me with most of your heart, soul, mind." No, you must be perfect, says God. And James says if you break even one law you're guilty of breaking them all. Think of it like a loan where if you miss just one payment, it all comes due at once.
You don't deal with God's immutable Law by making it doable. You deal with it by letting Jesus finish His sentence. He says that not only didn't He come to abolish the Law but the Prophets too. What did the prophets say? That the Seed of the Woman would come to crush the head of the serpent, to make our scarlet sins white as snow, to be a wrath removing sacrifice. Jesus would be the true scapegoat to carry away the sins of the world. Jesus would be the true Passover Lamb whose blood causes the Angel of Death to pass over whomever it is painted above.
You deal with the immovable Law of God with the prophesies of God, and with the two "until clauses" in the mouth of Jesus. "I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." You think since you see dirt beneath you and blue sky above you so you are to see the Law like the Sword of Damocles hanging over your head. Hear the second until' clause. This is the only sentence in all of the New Testament that has two until' clauses.'
The Law hangs over your head "until everything is accomplished." Jesus accomplished, fulfilled all God's law. He Himself said it was finished. Both the doing of them and the paying for the breaking of them. God the Father Himself said so by raising Jesus from the dead. Romans 4:25 says Jesus was delivered to death to pay for our sins, and raised to life to show we were right with God.
How can this text shine above you and show all God's commandments hanging over your head if Jesus fulfilled them all? How can this text shine beneath your feet exposing the gaping hole of hell ready to swallow you if Jesus has already suffered hell in your place? Do you think God is a worse father than you? Do you keep moving the goal posts, so that your child can never say he is finished with a chore? Do you keep upping the cost of the lamp he broke so that he can never finish paying for it? If you, being a sinner, don't do that, why do you think your heavenly Father does? He declared the Law accomplished in Jesus and the debt we incurred for breaking it, paid off. Let that shine forth from this text.
When I was in Lutheran grade school we had chapel every Wednesday. We sung "Beautiful Savior" a lot. When I first was able to read, I kept reading "robed" as "robbed." So instead of thinking the meadows were "robed in flowers of blooming spring." I thought they were robbed.' And in my young mind, it wasn't them that was robbed but Jesus. Why do we let the Devil, the World, and our fallen Flesh rob of us the light that shines forth from our text? Do you really think God the Son is not salty enough to be able to preserve us from being cast out and trampled eternally? Do you really think the darkness of your sin is able to snuff out His light of grace?
If so, then this text doesn't shine with the Light of the Glory of God in the face of the saving Jesus Christ. It shines with "Let your light shine before men," and "unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you'll never go to heaven."
Come on. Do you think based on even a casual reading of the rest of the Gospels that Jesus came into the world to make you better teachers of the Law and Pharisees? Did He come to make you better hypocrites? That's what He said they were. Did He come so you could succeed in making converts twice as much sons of hell? That's what Jesus said they did. Does Jesus want you better at devouring the houses of widows, making long prayers, and laying burdens on people's backs and not lifting a finger to help them? That's what Jesus said scribes and Pharisees did. Paul describes the righteousness he had when He was a Pharisee as faultless. But after being converted by Christ, he says he counted all that righteousness as garbage. Do you think Jesus in this text is trying to spotlight what Paul says he threw out?
Let's go back to the memorable jot and tittle. Jewish tradition regarded the letter jot' as irremovable. Even if all the men in all the world gathered together to abolish the least letter in the Law, they would not be able to do it. The tittle is the little hook on Hebrew letters that distinguish one from another. Think of the English O and Q. Jewish tradition said the guilt of changing those little hooks was declared so great that, if it were done, the world would be destroyed (Vincent, Word Studies in the NT, I, 40).
So, you see Jesus speaks right in the wheelhouse of a First Century Jew. Feel the burden of the Law they did, and see what the Scribes and Pharisees did with it. So as not to break a jot or tittle of the Sabbath law, they put up a fence of 613 other laws around it, so you would never get close to it. It's like your Baptist friend who says if you never drink alcohol at all, you could never over drink. Since dancing could lead to lewd thoughts, you should never dance. Pharisees would not eat of anything that had not been tithed. They wouldn't eat from the dishes of Samaritans. They thought by outwardly fulfilling their laws they were keeping God's. They thought that washing the outside of a cup was good enough.
Is that the light Jesus wants to shine on you from this text? No, He starts from the truth that His disciples are salt and light, and then He deals with the Law. Unlike the Scribes and the Pharisees who made the Law doable for them and everyone else guilty, Jesus' brings the whole force of the Law down on us and says not a jot or tittle passes away. It can only be dealt with by being accomplished. Jesus says literally that He didn't come to loosen the Laws but to fulfill them.
This text is meant to shine forth Jesus in every jot and title. A second-century father of the church said that when Jesus says the smallest letter will not pass away, He is pointing to Himself. The first letter of Jesus' name is written in both Greek and Hebrew with the smallest letter of each of their alphabets. So, Jesus is the one thing in the Word of God which will never pass away. O He falls to the ground and is buried, says this church father, but He does so willing in order to rise and bear much fruit (Origen, ACC, IA, 97).
To sum up this text. This little light of mine is not mine but Jesus'. He shines through me before men, and what good works can I do that will cause men to glorify the heavenly Father? The Father is glorified only through the Son. So, when I'm baptized, forgiven, or communed in Jesus' name the Father is glorified. When I walk about in my Baptism, in His forgiveness, or our Communion, people see that and praise the Father's grace, power, and mercy. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (20170205); Matthew 5: 13-20