You are the salt of the earth . . .
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.
Following on the heels of the Beatitudes, Jesus offers instruction to his gathered followers about how they should live.
He begins addressing them with the word, "You." If one were to read these verses apart from their immediate context in Matthew's gospel, it would be possible to read Jesus' words as if they were addressed to the reader him or herself, alone and isolated. After all, in English the singular "you" is indistinguishable from the plural "you"—that is, unless you're partial to the YouVersion Bible app's Southern cousin, Ya'll Version, which makes explicit each instance of the plural "you" in the Bible and which does, in fact, exist.
Reading this passage without knowing that the "you" Jesus uses is plural (or without the aid of the Ya'll Version) can lead to some confusion about what it might mean to be salt and light.
The plural "you" provides an interpretive key to the passage. Jesus is not sitting in a room alone with Peter, looking him in the eye, and declaring that he alone bears the responsibility of shining a light. Nor is the "you" plural simply because Jesus is addressing more than one person. Instead, the "you" is plural because, as theologian Stanley Hauerwas says, "[Jesus] is pointing to the corporate impact of the disciple community as an alternative society."
Hauerwas continues, intensifying his point about the declaration's claim on the disciple community: "The sermon is not a heroic ethic. It is the constitution of a people. You cannot live by the demands of the sermon on your own, but that is the point." The early church demonstrated their grasp of Jesus' collective call in their adoption of the phrase attributed to Tertullian: "One Christian is no Christian."
Perhaps to hear the call to be salt and light in isolation instead of hearing the call seated on the hillside surrounded by other disciples is to mishear it.
"You are a city on a hill," Jesus says. What is a lit city if not a cluster of individual lights, each adding to the intensity of the light? Jesus directs the call to the individual, to be sure. But it is precisely the intensity of the lights, brought about by their proximity to one another—what Hauerwas calls their "corporate impact"—that makes the city visible from afar off.
And what about this visibility? Jesus' use of the word "you," in addition to situating his hearers together, situates them as a certain kind of people given its context in the sermon. Namely, "you" refers to the blessed, persecuted ones (vv. 11-12), visible and vulnerable.
Inherent in a directive to be visible is the temptation to be seen for the sake of being seen. However, Jesus' implicit association of visibility and persecution ("Blessed are you when others revile you") should be sufficient to disabuse his hearers of the notion that being seen is an altogether positive experience. Perhaps recognizing the allure of this temptation, persecution notwithstanding, leads Jesus to make his warning explicit a little later on: "Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 6:1).
Just as enticing, however, is the temptation to turn inward. For those among Jesus' disciples who would later experience the connection between visibility and persecution firsthand, concealing the light must have seemed like the most logical option. Or, leaving aside the potential for persecution, those who hear Jesus' declaration in twenty-first century America might well ask, Why take the risk of being seen, especially if I view my faith as merely a personal matter, as something to be reined in any time it transgresses the boundary of my day-to-day life?
But Jesus' declaration, along with the example of the early church, does not seem to leave the inward turn as an option. Consider the following summary from Alan Kreider, who draws on ancient sources to offer a picture of early Christians' visibility in the Roman Empire:
"According to Tertullian, the outsiders looked at the Christians and saw them energetically feeding poor people and burying them, caring for boys and girls who lacked property and parents, and being attentive to aged slaves and prisoners. They interpreted those actions as a “work of love.” And they said, “Vide, look! How they love one another.” They did not say, Aude, listen to the Christians’ message”; they did not say, “Lege, read what they write.” ... Christianity’s truth was visible; it was embodied and enacted by its members."
Or take the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ever the enemy of the idolatrous worship of empire, even at the risk of imprisonment and death: "To flee to invisibility is to deny the call. Any community of Jesus which wants to be invisible is no longer a community that follows him."
For those of us who have been conditioned to restrict faith to the confines of our private lives, or who have succumbed to the temptation of self-preserving hiddenness or self-promoting visibility, perhaps the first step, even before we take up the mantle of being salt and light, is to show grace to ourselves and to one another for the ways in which we've failed to live up to this ethic. Jesus' declaration might not be new to our ears, but hearing it as part of the collective, persecuted, and often vulnerable "you" might sound a bit foreign. If so, praying a prayer of confession together as "we" might sound equally as odd on our lips.
Unheroic though it may be,
Most merciful God,
We confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed,
By what we have done,
And by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry, and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ,
Have mercy on us and forgive us,
That we may delight in your will,
And walk in your ways,
To the glory of your name. Amen.