You are the salt and light of the world

by Paul Peter Waldenström and translated by Mark Safstrom

This sermon appeared in 1902 in a collection of his sermons, Samlade Predikningar II, and was originally delivered on All Saints Day in Immanuel Church, Stockholm.

Text: Matthew 5:13–16

The Savior says here to his apostles: “You are the salt of the earth.” And what he says to them, applies to some degree to all Christians and in particular to all preachers of the gospel. He says this in regard to their work, their profession in this world. He had previously said to them: “Blessed are you, when human beings defame you and persecute you, saying all evil against you for my sake. Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is great in heaven. For in the same way they persecuted the prophets, who came before you.” The reason why they must be prepared to suffer such persecution is precisely because they are the salt of the world and the light of the world. If the prophets had simply remained silent and let everything they saw pass by without further comment, then they could have been left in peace…

If John the Baptist had contented himself with preaching for the people, and telling them that they should be well-behaved and god-fearing and pay their taxes and so on, then he would certainly have been praised. Perhaps he would have even become court preacher for Herod, and Herod might have exclaimed: “This is the best preacher in all my kingdom!” But when John did not stop with such sermons, but instead turned toward Herod himself and said: “Herod, you are living in sin, and this is no more permissible for you than for anyone else,” then that was the end of any friendship between them. Then Herod said: “It will not be any good to allow John to continue, for this will incite rebellion among the people. We must throw him in prison.” And so John sat there for a while. But then there came a day, when Herod had a feast, and had become drunk along with the rest of the company at his table. His unlawful wife’s daughter came in and danced before them, and it pleased him so greatly that he, in his intoxication, granted her the head of John the Baptist. This is how things went for John, because he was the salt of the world. What if John had instead thought along these lines: “If I try to scold Herod, then I will probably irritate him and will risk being thrown in prison, and then it would be impossible for me to continue to preach for the people; it would therefore be better if I leave Herod in peace, and stick to preaching for the people; in doing so, many will be rescued, but who knows if Herod will be rescued by me speaking to him? My ministry will be brought to an end.” Surely John was tempted to take this course, but he did not give in to this temptation. His work was to serve as the salt of the world, and so he scattered salt all around him. This stung when it entered into people’s wounds, and it stung Herod too, since he was human like everyone else, though it was no more acceptable for him to live in sin than for anyone else to do so.

If Christ wouldn’t have troubled himself with scolding the high priests and the scribes for their hypocrisy and false righteousness, then he would certainly have been celebrated by them, perhaps even acclaimed as Messiah. Who knows? If he had been content to simply scold publicans and prostitutes, and instead bowed deeply for the scribes and Pharisees, then people would have said: “Our people have never seen a greater prophet than this Jesus of Nazareth.” Then he might have earned the acclaim of even Caiaphas. But when he turned to these men—who fasted twice a week and gave a tenth of all their property, and what is more, observed the three regulatory prayer times each day and other such duties that belonged to the divine service—when he turned to these men and said: “You brood of vipers, who has warned you to flee from the coming wrath,” then they sang another tune. Then they said: “This Jesus of Nazareth is misleading the people, we need to be rid of him, one way or another. We must be rid of him.” They tried several times to have him stoned, though they did not succeed. At last, they had him sentenced to death and executed. Why? Because he was a salt in the world, and the salt burned in their wounds.

The apostles acted similarly, and met with similar results. The one was beheaded, the other crucified. Similar examples can be seen in the lives of Wycliff, Hus, Peter Waldo, Luther and others. They were either burned, drowned, hanged or in some other way executed, or had to endure bitter persecutions, to the glory of God and to the service of humanity, as well as to the particular delight of the Pharisees and scribes and high priests. Why? Because they were the salt of the earth, and this salt burned in their wounds. And instead of seeking a cure for their wounds, these people instead tried to get rid of the salt. Therefore the Savior now says to his disciples: “You are the salt of the earth. Be prepared that your work will sting in the wounds of the world, and that you will receive the wages which will follow.”…

Our Savior says further: “You are the light of the world.” He calls himself the light of the world, when he says: “I am the light of the world: the one who follows me, he shall not wander in the darkness, but instead he shall have the light of life.” Here he is now calling the believers the light of the world. But this is in another and lower meaning. One can say that the sun is the light of the earth, but also that the moon is a light of the earth. But the light the moon has, it receives from the sun and reflects onto the earth. In the same way, the disciples of Jesus receive their light from Christ, who is the sun, and this light is reflected through them out into the world. In this way, they too became the light of the world….

This is how the Lord intends for the believers to be light in the world. They may be greater or lesser lights, they might stand in the market square, in the streets or inside a room, they may shine by the beds of the sick and the poor, or in some other place—each and every one of them is to shine with the light one has, until that point when their light has burned down or the master of the house has blown it out. You, who think that you are gifted with little, that your light is seen so poorly, do not be ashamed of your little light. Neither should you be jealous of those who have greater lights. And you who have a greater light, do not be proud over those with lesser lights….

Now the Savior says to his disciples: “Let your lights shine before human beings, that they might see your good deeds and praise your Father, who is in heaven.” … Good deeds are those, which proceed from a love of God, and which serve to magnify his name and to bless your neighbor. It is not said, therefore, that every good thing that is done is a good deed. For I can do something, which comes to the benefit of another, and my deed can nevertheless, when one looks closer at it, be anything other than a good deed. It may have been done with a bad intention, for example, so that I might win my own glory, or something of that sort. That a deed is great and shines is not at all to say that it is a good deed. We have an example of this in the text for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity. There were many rich people, who laid great gifts in the offering chest, which was good of course, but this was not therefore a good deed, and the Savior did not praise them for this either. For it is the characteristic of good deeds that not only the deed in and of itself is good, but also that the source, from which it proceeds, is good. Besides the deed can be good, even though it does not shine much, which is illustrated in the same story. For the Savior praised the widow, who laid two pieces in the offering chest, coins so small, that according to the regulations of the forefathers, it was forbidden to lay such coins in the offering chest. But the widow’s deed was yet good, for it proceeded from a spirit of reverence for God….

Let us pray to God to be able to shine in the world with our good deeds, each and every person, wherever we have been placed. Take pains to shine where you are standing, that through your light, some glory might be harvested for God and Christ. Take pains, that you might be a light before the Lord, whatever your position in this world. It is he, who will judge your light. And of a light, one expects nothing less than that it would shine with all the strength and ability that it has, and in the place where the master of the house has placed it…. Indeed, may God in heaven help us to this end, that we with all of our deeds might magnify God. This will not merely be through our preaching and mission and offerings, but also as each and every one of us faithfully does that which we know is the will of God, and that we do this in the place where we are standing. This is the whole point. Let us pray to God for the grace to be able to do it. Amen.