Introducing the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) #3

The church is a liberated and liberating community
Reading the Sermon on the Mount in the light of its context highlights the radical power of the message of Jesus. It reveals its social and political cutting edge. But does it also make it remote to our concerns? People today do not long for a return from Babylonian exile. We are not under Roman occupation. What is the contemporary relevance of Jesus’ message of liberation? The answer is that people today still long for liberation. They long for liberation from the knock of the loan shark, from dependency on drugs, from the bottle, from cycles of violence, from the threat of a poor harvest, from the fear of corrupt officials. We live in a society of broken people needing liberation and longing for home. This message of liberation speaks directly to our situation.Jesus proclaimed a message of liberation. It is a political message – not in the sense of fomenting revolution now (see 5:9, 39, 41, 44), but in the sense of witnessing to the hidden revolution that will be revealed at the last day. It is a message of future liberation. But the new regime has begun among Christ’s community of the broken. The Christian community is the place of liberation.

We have seen how the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount should be read as an announcement of liberation and an end to exile. Jesus continues by saying ‘you are the salt of the earth’. He is talking to his disciples (Matthew 5:1). Salt in the Old Testament was a sign of covenant faithfulness. In the Old Testament salt was to be added to every sacrifice (Leviticus 2:13). The reason given is that salt is a sign of the covenant with God. Numbers talks of an everlasting covenant of salt before the Lord for both you and your offspring’ (Numbers 18:19; see also Exodus 30:35). Salt is a sign that the covenant will last, a sign of covenant faithfulness. Adding salt was a way of saying: I bind myself to the agreement. It was our equivalent of shaking on it. This was how the contract was signed. Still today some Arabs throw salt to seal an agreement. ‘Don’t you know that the Lord, the God of Israel, has given the kingship of Israel to David and his descendants for ever by a covenant of salt’ says King Abijah (2 Chronicles 13:5). Salt was a sign that the covenant would last for ever. It was sign of faithfulness and commitment.

So when Jesus says ‘you are the salt of the earth’ he is not saying they were to act as a preservative, upholding the morality of society. Rather, Jesus is saying to his followers: ‘You are the faithful ones, you are the ones who are part of the covenant’. When he talks about salt losing its saltiness, he is talking about the nation of Israel. They have not been faithful to the covenant and so they will not enjoy liberation from exile. They have been and will be ‘thrown out’ – in other words, they have been exiled. They have been and will be ‘trampled by men’ – in other words, they have been judged by a conquering army.

In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus says: forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors’ (Matthew 6:12 niv). God’s forgiveness of us in the future is related to our forgiveness of others in the present. It is not that we can earn forgiveness by being forgiving. It is rather that our experience of God’s great mercy should makes us merciful people (Matthew 18:21–35). But Matthew uses the economic language of ‘indebtedness’. Tom Wright says the Lord’s Prayer ‘is genuinely a jubilary prayer’.[1] In the Old Testament year of jubilee, debts were forgiven and slaves were set free as the people celebrated God’s grace to them in providing atonement (see Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15). Now the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world has come. In the light of God’s forgiveness, a new era of economic and social relations has begun among those forgiven and set free by Christ’s death. The followers of Jesus are to live as both recipients of, and participants in, a permanent jubilee.

The Christian community is both a sign and a promise of God’s coming liberation. We are the presence of God’s liberating kingdom in a broken world. We are the place where liberation can be found, offering a home for exiled people. We are to welcome the broken people to a community of broken people. We are the community among whom liberation is a present reality – the jubilee people who live with new economic and social relationships. We are the light of the world, a city on a hill. The challenge for us is to articulate Jesus’ message of liberation in a way that connects with people’s experience and offers a place of liberation in the Christian community.

For now we go on living under the old regimes of this world. But a new regime has begun. A revolution has taken place. The old ways of oppression are coming to an end. A new community with a new government has begun. It operates secretly in the midst this world. It is a community that offers peace and justice.

[1] Tom Wright, The Lord and His Prayer (Triangle, 1996), pp. 51-56.