At the Feet of the Rabbi: Salt & Light

Let thy house be a meeting-house for the wise;
and powder thyself in the dust of their feet;
and drink their words with thirstiness.

The source of this saying is the Mishnah, Avot 1:4. The Mishnah is a collection of rabbinic thought from 200 BC to 200 AD that still forms the core of Jewish belief today. The second line is sometimes translated as “sit amid the dust of their feet,” and is understood as humbly sitting at the feet of one’s teacher.  From this arose a widely-used idiom for studying with a rabbinic teacher, that you “sat at his feet.”  Paul says he was educated “at the feet Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3)  Mary “sat at Jesus’ feet” in Luke 10:39 suggests that he was her rabbi too.  Read literally, the saying sounds more like it’s describing the idea of “powdering yourself,” like a woman powdering her face.  I played with my grandmother’s powder as a child and it got all over the place and covered everything.  Like Ganny’s powder, the disciples were walking through clouds of dust billowing up along a dirt roadway, the dust was getting into all the nooks and crannies of their hearts and lives.

That is the whole point of this sermon series, to be at the feet of our Rabbi, Jesus, and to walk in his dust.  Our text today is part of the larger Sermon on the Mount and one of the more famous portions.

Hear now the word of God at the heart of Jesus’ teaching:

Matthew 5:13-20

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 underfoot. 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.

Remember my saying last week that the “Sermon on the Mount” is an artificial construct?  Jesus didn’t know they would call the first section “The Beatitudes,” he was just teaching the disciples the way they should be in the world.  The Beatitudes start off really impersonal.  “Blessed are those…” But verse 11 gets more personal, “11 “Blessed are YOU when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Then chapter 5 continues, “YOU are the salt of the earth…YOU are the light of the world.”  We each sit at the feet of our Rabbi and he personally calls us to be salt and light to all the world.

Raise your hand if you ever read the play Romeo and Juliet or have seen the many film adaptations?  I admit that it isn’t one of my favorite Shakespearean works.  I find it melodramatic and completely unnecessary, but I digress.  You know the story, these two teenagers start a relationship and find out they belong to opposite sides of a huge family feud.  Juliet is a Capulet, and Romeo is a Montague, and they’re falling so deeply in love that they’re ready to throw away all of those labels, and lose their last names if necessary. That’s when Juliet famously says: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”

I love that line because Shakespeare is hinting at a much bigger idea. It’s the idea that what we name something or call something doesn’t determine what it is. If we called a rose a “Stink-daisy,” wouldn’t it still be one of the most beautiful, delicate and sweet-smelling of plants? Yes. Wouldn’t a bunch of us hope to have a yard full of Stink-daisies? Absolutely. Because what we name or call something doesn’t determine what it is. Instead, the true essence or character determines it.

That’s big, y’all, because the first thing that comes out of Jesus’ mouth, this is directly from God in flesh, from our personal Rabbi, is this: you are priceless and have great purpose; there’s power in you like no other. Maybe you didn’t hear it that way, but in Jesus’ context, that’s exactly what salt and light represented. Their essence was to be these unique, rare, valuable things, that were incredibly useful. Our Rabbi looks at us straight in the eye and says, “I have called YOU.”  My yoke is easy and my burden light.  If you follow in my ways, you will ALWAYS be enough. I want you to hear that from Jesus. As salt and light, YOU are no accident, but God-made, with God-purposes in mind.

The crowd didn’t know what to say. Why? Because in their world, they’d been drilled by how sinful and naturally evil they were. The scribes and Pharisees had taught that only the most devout who kept every rule could earn God’s favor, and these crowds near Galilee were not in that club.  They didn’t make the cut. I think that’s why Jesus feels the need to say this whole second section here – to reassure the people that he isn’t rewriting the law or inventing a new religion, but that he is the ULTIMATE fulfillment and the scribes and Pharisees themselves aren’t truly holy enough, not in the right way, for this yoke.  Remember Matthew is writing for a particularly Jewish audience and Jesus IS the fulfillment of all the prophets foretold.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t say “If you want to be salt and light, you’re going to need to DO, DO, DO.” Instead, he tells us this is what we are, and our only job is to “BE.” Doesn’t it sound heavenly to simply be?  Be with no pretense, with no façade, not worrying about public opinion or how it will look or will they understand.  Simply resting in God’s love.  Knowing who you are and Whose you are.  That would be a relief to so many people.

The truth is that salt and light don’t DO a lot, in and of themselves. When we enjoy a great meal and want to compliment the chef, we don’t say, “You know, that was the best salt I ever tasted?” or “Do you think you can give your recipe for that salt?” No. Because the salt isn’t made to do the DOING of the meal, it’s meant to compliment the main course by being there in the mix, and as my grandmother has always said, you can always add more salt, but you can’t take it away. If someone visits your newly-renovated, newly-decorated home, how would you feel if they said, “Well, now, the thing I really love is your light. Where did you get that lovely light that’s shining through the windows?”  You want to hear about the colors you painted or a particular piece of artwork or the accents or how you set the furniture…maybe the windows and fixtures but not the LIGHT itself. Because the light isn’t the focal point, it’s what allows us to experience the main attraction. In the same way, I think Jesus is letting us know that all we have to do is BE, and in fact if we think our job is to DO and DO and DO then we’re probably just trying to eclipse the real focus, which is God Almighty. If we can just rest on God’s grace alone, then we are BEING who God designed us to be, we’re merely helping enhance the world’s experience of God, and draw attention to God.  If we move and breathe and follow our Rabbi than we ARE going to BE salt and light.

AMC was showing a marathon of the movie Groundhog Day on Groundhog Day.  I never knew how much Mike loves the movie.  It was in the middle and I tried to stay awake, but inevitably the monotony put me to sleep.  I knew the concept of Groundhog Day that the weather man played by Bill Murray lives the day over and over, but I didn’t know how he got it to stop or why, so we watched it on Saturday. Mike did say a lot of the lines and he started laughing before it would get to a funny part because he was remembering along with the movie.  As much as I’ve teased him about the movie being annoying,I ended up really liking the movie.  Part of that, was when he let go and just simply was, taking opportunities as they come, he didn’t have to DO anything to impress Andy McDowell’s character.  He doesn’t need to showboat to get the girl.  He’s not even trying.  At the end of the movie, it just comes naturally.  It flows naturally from him in a humble way.

I want following Jesus to be as natural to us as breathing.  I want us to recognize how much Jesus invites us just to be, to live out of our God-given essence.  He’s real with us. He lets us know we have a choice.  To be the essence and nature of what God means for us or not. In other words, even though God’s grace saves us and redeems us into roses, we can still choose to look and smell and act more like a Stink-daisy. It’s really easy to do. So, our Rabbi issues our greatest warning: don’t choose to lose your true taste. Don’t choose to dilute your true flavor. Don’t choose to cover your God-given light. Don’t do it. Just BE, through and in me.

That, my friends, is just one part of a pretty powerful yoke.

The question is, will this be a yoke that we take up for ourselves? Will we call ourselves “Christians” only in title or label or name, or will we BE disciples who live out of the God-given, Christ-redeemed essence and character that follows the way of our true Rabbi?

Mary Louise Rowand, writes an article titled “We Know the Words – We Need Lives to Match!,” in Bread Afresh, Wine Anew, “It is very easy in our eagerness to serve Christ through our complicated organizational structures, through what we call (ugh!) “the business of the church, ” through our conventions and assemblies and proclamations and creed … it is very easy in all this to forget the primary reason for our existence. Hence the need for Dostoevski.

“Dostoevski, that most outstanding of all modern Russian writers, in his finest novel The Brothers Karamazov [San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990], recognized this condition in the church of his day. In the chapter “The Grand Inquisitor” [249-262], he expresses his feelings in a chilling and terrifying story. The setting: the days of the Spanish Inquisition, in Seville. Jesus has just returned to earth. He has come to Seville and is walking toward the massive Gothic cathedral in the vast square. A funeral procession is also slowly moving toward the cathedral steps. The only child of a noble citizen has died. Her little casket is being carried to the cathedral. Suddenly, the people see Jesus and they recognize him immediately. He has come back as he promised. Here he is among them now, the one to whom all their prayers and hopes have been directed. He can give new life to this innocent little girl as he did long ago in Palestine.

“The people call to him, and he goes to them. They cry out, ‘Heal this child!’ The mother falls on her knees in front of him. ‘Have mercy on me. If you will, you can put new life into my child.’ He pauses, then raising both hands high into the air, he cries out to his God, ‘Let this child live!’ And to the utter amazement of everyone, the child moves, sits up surrounded by all the flowers, smiles and calls out to her mother. The people begin to chant, ‘He has come to us! He has come! He has come!’

“However, standing in the shadows of the cathedral is the Grand Inquisitor, the powerful cardinal of the church. What he has seen he does not like. He sees Jesus’ arrival not as an occasion for rejoicing, but as a threat to his authority. So the cardinal has Jesus arrested and placed in a solitary prison cell. Late that night, the cardinal comes alone to visit his royal prisoner.

“‘Why have you come?’ he demands. ‘We no longer have need of you! We are now in charge of your church. We know how to run it well. Why have you come back to disturb our peace and authority? Leave us now. Do not come back. We have no need of you!’ Dostoevski has Jesus look long and lovingly into the empty eyes of the cardinal … and then, Jesus stands, walks across the cell, and kisses the cardinal lightly on his thin, bloodless lips. Then Jesus walks out of the cell, leaving the cardinal alone with his great cathedral ….

“Why do we come here to worship, Sunday after Sunday, 52 Sundays a year, for five, 10, 30 years – or a whole lifetime? Getting up early Sunday morning, getting ready, getting the children dressed, driving over in all sorts of weather, sometimes not feeling too well ourselves, angry at the government, worried about our health and financial problems, dressed in our best and on our best behavior, walking into the building, greeting friends, singing hymns, praying prayers, reading scripture, listening to sermons, bringing our offering, taking the bread and cup. … We call it the worship of God, but why do we do this?

“I’m sure there are many reasons, but deep down inside I feel we do this in the hope that we might get to know Jesus of Nazareth better. We are seeking our primary source! And to know him better, perhaps our lives will be better, perhaps the world will be a better place. In reality, are we not here seeking Jesus?”

We ARE seeking Jesus.  We choose to sit at the feet of our Rabbi.  We are chosen by name to give salt to people whose lives are bland until they hear the Good News of Jesus.  To bring light to a world of darkness.  The British Art Critic John Ruskin lived in the days when English villages were lighted by lamps along the street. One evening, he watched with a friend as a lamplighter moved slowly on a distant hill, lighting the lamps along the street. Ruskin said, “There is what I mean by being a real Christian. You can trace his course by the lights that he leaves burning.”  If we have our Rabbi’s dust on us, his yoke, we will be love.  We will be hope. We will be peace.  We will be joy.  We will be salt.  We will be light.

 

 

2 thoughts on “At the Feet of the Rabbi: Salt & Light

  1. I did read “The Brothers Kalamazoo” many years ago, but do not recall “The Grand Inquisitor”. I need to go back and reread that part. What a chilling message to the church!

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