Who are we and what are we to do?  Jesus mixes salt and light and comes up with compassion.

Full Text: 

Matthew 5:13-20

Last week, I shared with you a couple of stories fromTattoos on the Heart, by Gregory Boyle. He is a priest who has worked with gangs and gang members for over twenty years. He has a master’s degree in English and, at one point, taught at Folsom Prison.

While teaching the inmates a story by Flannery O’Connor - “A Good Man is Hard to Find” – they begin to discuss the transformation of one of the characters. The inmates begin to use the words, “sympathy,” “empathy,” and “compassion,” interchangeably. Since he is stalling for time before the bell rings, he asks them to define them.

“Well, sympathy,” one begins, “is when your homie’s mom dies and you go up to him and say, “’Spensa– sorry to hear’ bout your moms.’”

Just as quickly, there is a volunteer to define empathy.

“Yeah, well, empathy is when your homie’s mom dies and you say, “’Spensa,‘bout your moms.Sabes qué, my moms died six months ago. I feel ya, dog.’”

“Excellent,” I say. “Now, what’s compassion?”

No takers.

The class collectively squirms and stares at their state-issue boots.

“Come on now,” I say, “Compassion – what’s it mean?”

Their silence is quite sustained, like visitors entering for the first time some sacred, mysterious temple.

Finally, an old-timer, down twenty-five years, tentatively raises his finger. I call on him.

“Well, now,” he says, all eyes on him, shaking his head, “Compassion – that’s sumthin’ altogether different.”

He ponders what he’ll say next.

“Cause,” he adds humbly, “That’s what Jesus did. I mean Compassion…IS…God.”

God is compassionate, lovingkindness. All we’re asked to do is to be in the world who God is.(p. 61-62)

That’s all we’re asked to do. That’s why we are called to be salt and to be light. And that’s what Israel was asked to do from the very beginning, through the covenant of Moses – to be salt and light.

You are the salt of the earth, Jesus says. Salt has a number of beneficial properties. It cleanses wounds. It preserves food. It brings distinctive flavor to almost any dish. (It melts snow, but I don’t believe Jesus was thinking of that!) While each of these has significant spiritual connotations, I believe that Jesus is talking here mostly about distinctiveness. The people of Israel would be God’s own possession out of all the people of earth. But they are acting just like any other people on earth. They have lost their distinctiveness. They are not fulfilling the identity God has given them to bring compassion to the world. And so Jesus reminds the disciples to be salt.

You are the light of the world,he adds. Through their covenant with God , Israel ’s mission was to reveal the God of the universe to the rest of the world. They were to shine their light so that others would give glory to God and would come to God. Instead, Israel – and in particular the religion of Israel as practiced by the scribes and Pharisees – has erected barriers to God, keeping other people away from God. To be light means living so that other people will see God and be drawn to God. This too is Jesus’ call to the disciples.

Being God’s people means being salt and being light. This is the identity that Israel had from the beginning. It is an identity and mission of which Jesus is reminding the disciples.

What do you do with salt that has lost its distinctiveness? You throw it out. But Jesus is not, he hastens to assure the disciples, throwing out the law and the prophets. In fact, what he is doing is in continuity with everything that has happened in the past, with all of the laws of Moses and with all the promises of God. He is not doing away with any of it. Rather, he is fulfilling its true purpose.

What is the true purpose of the law and the prophets? To enable them to practice righteousness – a righteousness that is greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees. This would have been shocking to the disciples. It would have been as shocking to them as when Jesus said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven! It would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” This is shocking because everyone knew that wealth was a sign of blessing from God.

From the point of view of the disciples, there is no one more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees. They have brought the practice of righteousness to a whole new level. They wanted to incorporate every minute of every day into their spiritual lives. They were stricter about the law than anyone else. How could the disciples be more righteousness than they?

According to Dallas Willard, inThe Divine Conspiracy, Jesus is not raising the bar on righteousness – he is changing the bar on righteousness. He is not calling them to ramp-up their efforts. He is not calling the disciples to “out-Pharisee” the Pharisees. He is calling them to the true understanding of the law.

At the heart of this understanding, of the true practice of righteousness, according to Jesus, is compassion and integrity. By practicing the law with compassion and integrity, we will be living the whole law – Do to others as you would have them do to you – and we would be living the wholeness of God – Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.

In the next few weeks, as we continue to read through the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us how we can become people of compassion and integrity.

For now, let me share with you one more bit fromTattoos on the Heart.

Before he taught inmates at Folsom Prison, and before he became a priest, Gregory Boyle taught at Loyola High School . He went there in 1979 for his first teaching assignment. As he was carrying his books and his coffee cup down the hall to his class room on the first day, feeling very raw and scared, he passed by another room and saw a veteran teacher, Donna Wannland, reading the Los Angeles Times.

“It’s my first day of teaching,” I say to her, “Give me some advice.”

She doesn’t turn from her paper but holds out her right hand, displaying two fingers.

“Two things,” she says, “One: know all their names by tomorrow. Two: It’s more important that they know you than that they know what ya know.”(p. 54)

To know someone’s name is not only to connect with them in a significant way. It is to honor them. It is a sign that you consider them worth knowing. And you further build a relationship with them – not through some agenda that you have for them – but rather in showing them who you are, in being open to them.

To be compassionate literally means to “suffer with” someone. To do that you must stand with them by connecting with them and by opening yourself to them. And this is what Jesus does. He stands with us. He is Emmanuel – God with us.

So – who can you stand with? At school, at work, on the street, in the neighborhood – who can you stand with in compassion – not with an agenda, but simply a desire to be the love of God in their lives?

This is the law and the prophets. To live with compassion is to be the salt of the earth, bringing cleansing and preservation and flavor to God’s world. To live with compassion is to be the light of the world, to show God to the world so that people give glory to God and are drawn to God.

That is all we’re asked to do – to live in the world as Jesus did –

with the compassion of God.