Missing the forest for the trees
As we continue this Epiphany’s journey of discovery – of coming out from under the tent and beginning to look at the world in a new way – the gospel challenges us… again!
In today’s gospel, we find Jesus addressing his followers this way, “You are the salt of the Earth.” Now, let me tell you, I wish Jesus would have said, “You should be the salt,” or “It would be nice if you were to be the salt.”
Or even, “If you were to clean up your life, showed up in church, studied the Bible, paid your tithes, and lived a holy life, then you might become the salt of the earth.”
But no. Jesus was clear. “You are the salt of the earth,” He said. What Jesus was trying to say to those who were listening, that they already were the salt of the earth?
Often, this verse is understood as referring to salt being a condiment – for, in this day and age, what is salt used other than for cooking?
However, let me try a different track, for Jesus was addressing a different audience. And so, it is important for us to understand what Jesus really meant, and then apply it to our present circumstances.
As you know, our Lord’s main audience were fishermen, laborers, farmers, shepherds, or caravan drivers. In other words, they were the working poor, the Joe-six-pack of the day.
They were those whom the social and religious elites dismissed as illiterate and ignorant of the Law and traditions. Yet, they all understood what Jesus meant.
And now, to boot, Jesus was addressing them as salt. Rob Kyff, writing in the Hartford Courant remarks that, “Back then, salt was highly prized as a preservative of food – so precious that it was used as money. Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in salt, giving us the word ‘salary,’ derived from the Latin word for salt – ‘sal.’”
In other words, the Good News that Jesus came to share was that those whom the world despised were valuable in God’s eyes – Worthy of being redeemed even at the price of the Cross.
In addressing the people, Jesus told them that in God’s eyes, they were most treasured, for God loved the world – not the few, not the chosen, not those who keep all and every commandment. God so loved the whole world so those who believe in such a good news may have life everlasting.
After such good news that may have shocked those listening, then, Jesus advises them – “Do not lose track of your value.” “Do not let others tell you that in God’s eyes, you are worthless – because where you were born, or what you do for a living, how do you live your life, and how you were created.”
In Jesus’ view, no one had the power to tell them that they were not worthy to receive God’s blessings.
It is easy to understand why the religious elites were disturbed by our Lord’s claims. In the religious establishment of the day, following the Law meant prosperity, honor, respect, and even pride. Remember the young man telling Jesus that he had kept all the commandments all of his life? (Mark 10:20).
On the other hand, the prevalent religious view of the day was that those who were afflicted by oppression, poverty, sickness, and those who could barely survive were living proof of God’s displeasure and even wrath.
Such view was so ingrained in society, that when the disciples met a blind man, they asked, “Why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins?” (John 9:2).
As you will realize, this kind of understanding still reaches out from the old pages of the Scriptures all the way to our days. In other words, the understanding that God’s hate towards sin is more powerful that His love for sinners.
Two major tenets of what Jesus came to teach his generation all the way to our days was the value of human beings. First, John 3:16 declares how prized humans are valued in God’s eyes. As I said before, Jesus came to save the world – not just a few. For when God created humans, he saw them as “very good.” And not even the Fall changed God’s mind.
And second, Jesus came to teach us what God requires from his beloved sons and daughters, “To love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and, ‘To love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Everything else, as the great Rabbi Hillel famously summarized, “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others. The rest is commentary.”
Our Lord’s incarnation as a human being – like anyone of us – underscored what God truly meant when He said that He loved us as His own, “as is.”
Otherwise, God would have sent an angel, without the shortcomings and failings of human beings. Or He would have appeared as a grown up and not as an utterly dependent Baby.
Our Lord’s simple life, totally devoid of the religious trappings so prevalent in his day, underscored what God meant when He commanded us to love Him and to love neighbor as ourselves – Full stop.
And like in the days of old, what Jesus came to teach and show in His way of life and death continues to be unsettling and divisive. For what Jesus came to teach us was not to miss the forest, by limiting ourselves to inspect, study, and define the tree to the most minute detail and telling others that our definition is the only true and acceptable.
Allow me to go back to the Book of Ruth, which I already mentioned a few Sundays ago. A good question to ask is, “Why this book is in the Hebrew Bible (and thus part of our Christian scriptures?).” And if the central character of the story is Naomi, why the story ends up being more about Ruth than Naomi?
If for a moment one sets aside Ruth’s example of kindness and dedication, the book has almost no right to be in the Bible. First, of course, because it was a tale about women, and the central protagonists are women. And second, to add insult to injury, the book is about a woman who is not even Jewish!
For Ruth was a Moabite not a part of Israel. Moabites were descendants of Lot and not part of the promised descendants of Abraham, (Strike 1). They didn’t worship God, but worshipped Chemosh, their own local God, (Strike 2).
And finally – Ruth decides by herself that she will become part of Israel. There was no purification, and she didn’t follow all the religious rites necessary to become formally part of the nation of Israel, (Strike 3).
But there is even a further strike 4 – or the mother of all strikes, if you will. The Book of Deuteronomy declares, “No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter into the assembly of The Eternal,” (23:3). That is, if one were born a Moabite, they could never, ever be part of Israel. That’s it.
Technically – or better, if one were to follow the Bible chapter and verse, in the view of religious people, Ruth had no business being in the Bible.
And yet, here is Ruth, the heroine, and in the pages of the Bible. But why not? She was an example of faithfulness and loving-kindness, wasn’t she? She professed to follow the God of Israel, didn’t she? She did all the right moves, didn’t she?
“But I’m sorry.” The Law said that no Moabites could be part of Israel. There was nothing they could do. Tough luck – they were born out of Israel. And one is not going to change what God had decreed, right?
Now, it was not because religious people wanted to be mean to such a wonderful people. No. They could be Moabites in their own corner.
Why would they want to be part of Israel – they should have known better rather than being born in Moab, didn’t they? Moabites were born Moabites not because they choose to be Moabites. Or because someone taught them how to be Moabites. Again, what is one to do, if “the Bible tells me so?”
And yet, Ruth was not only in the Bible and remains part of it, even to this day, but Ruth eventually became the great-grandmother of King David. And so a direct ascendant of our Lord Jesus Christ, Blessed be His Name!
In other words, to the religious people Ruth was worthless. And yet, according to Jesus, Ruth was salt of the earth.
And that was the reason that so many were upset with Jesus – and still are, even today.
If Jesus were to show up today, I wonder whom He would address and would tell them, “You are the salt of the earth?” And I wonder who would be upset? Who would become “the older brother” of the parable of the Prodigal Son?
Yes. Getting out from under the familiar tent of OUR beliefs and OUR traditions and looking at the stars in a new way is a challenge.
Let me finish with these words from our second lesson: “For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will ruin the cleverness of the intelligent.’ But to those whom God calls, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
As I reflected on the implications of what Jesus had to say, I cannot but realize that Jesus is already here – for we are the Body of Christ. I am part of Christ authentic and living presence in this world.
In closing, had I been Paul I may have added a verse. “For the love of God overcomes all human divisions and the pull of God’s love brings closer to him even those we think shouldn’t be there at all. Even me.” Amen.