Laws, Oaths, and Good Turns

Matthew 5:13-20
© Stacey Steck

To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is like being a Scout. You have to be prepared, and you have to do your best. Those are the Boy Scout and Cub Scout mottos, respectively, in case you needed a refresher. The life of faith has often been compared to a journey. To go on a journey, and to survive it, requires that you be prepared with all you’ll need from beginning to end. The life of faith has also been compared to a race. And to run the race, maybe even to win the race, you need to do your best. Give it less than 100% and you will come in second place, ninety nine times out of a hundred. Be prepared and do your best. Good advice for Scouts. Good advice for people of faith.

In some ways, the famous Sermon on the Mount, from which our passage from Matthew comes, is Jesus’ way of not only saying to the disciples, “Be prepared and do your best,” but his way of helping them to be prepared and to do their best. Indeed, there’s an interesting, if imperfect, parallel between becoming a member of the early church, the church of the first centuries, and earning the rank of Eagle Scout, the highest in rank in Scouting. You see, in the early church the process of preparation for baptism was not really so different from what we ask Scouts of every level to do: to be prepared and to do their best. It is said that those who presented themselves for baptism in the early church had to do two things: Memorize the Apostles Creed, and show that they could live out the Sermon on the Mount. Affirm the Creed and live the Sermon. If that seems like a lot, if that seems like a high expectation, if it seems like a high bar, don’t worry; they had at least a year to work on their understanding of who God is, and how they should live as a result. Eagle Scouts have more than a year to complete their requirements, but as you look at their uniforms, you see that it is indeed a lot of work and a lot of commitment. Those about to be baptized were called catechumens, and the period of instruction before they could be baptized was a lengthy and rigorous one. They needed to be able to recite the Apostle’s Creed, not nearly as easy as you might think since nearly all of them were illiterate and could not memorize it as we do by reading it again and again. And they needed to be able to prove they could be the salt and the light that Jesus tells us about in our own passage this morning from Matthew.

Our Scouts must do something similar. They must memorize their oaths, laws, mottos, and slogans, and they must show they can live them out by doing their “good turns,” that great old fashioned way of saying, doing good deeds. It is not enough to affirm with words the life of faith. One must live it following the example of Jesus Christ. The Sermon on the Mount is, of course, filled with Jesus’ words on how to live ethically, responsibly, and fruitfully the faith we state in our creeds. There is, of course, an implicit theology in the Sermon, but you have to extract it from all the explicit directions on how to conduct your life as a follower of Jesus Christ, you have to pull it out from all of Jesus’ wisdom on adultery, on divorce, on making oaths, on retaliating, on loving your enemies, on generosity, to name just a few of his themes. In this morning’s passage, which is the first part of the Sermon following the famous Beatitudes, Jesus previews the rest of the sermon; he sets up those who are listening to him by praising them, followed by an exhortation to live into that praise: “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” High praise indeed for people who had probably never considered themselves as such, neither praiseworthy, nor as valuable as salt and light. We have to remember what comes just before these words, those famous beatitudes, and to remember what Jesus is telling them through those beautiful words: Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are those who are merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers. Blessed are you, Jesus says, blessed and not cursed.

Some of your Bibles may translate the beatitudes as “Happy,” as in “Happy are the poor in spirit,” but to use happy is to miss the fundamental point Jesus is making about those to whom he is preaching. Jesus is not talking to the scholars and rabbis, the healthy, wealthy and educated. He is talking to the disciples, to the rabble of hopeless, desperate people who needed someone who cared, who needed words of inspiration and compassion, who needed a reminder of who God is. These are people who had come to believe the prevailing religious wisdom that if you were poor, if you were sick, if you were suffering, it was because you had done something wrong, had committed some sin, and that as a result of your uncleanness, you were not blessed by God, but rather, cursed. And so now, on that mountaintop, he is giving words to the blessing he had already been sharing with those who had sought him for healing from their diseases, their paralyses, their demon possessions, their epilepsies. All of these he healed, all of these with their outward expressions of suffering, and now he turns inward to their human hurts and hopes, and he reminds these too, that they are blessed, not cursed.

To be blessed means to have some value in the kingdom, some value in God’s eyes, and so Jesus moves on from reminding them of their value to showing them just how valuable they are. “You are the salt of the earth,” he tells them, and that would give them a clue of their value. You see, biologically speaking, after water, perhaps the next most important element for human survival is salt. In fact, those of you who do a lot of exercise know that it is best not to drink too much pure water to refresh yourself, but rather to drink something with salt in it like Gatorade, which contains essential electrolytes the body needs that can be diluted by drinking only water. Salt was necessary for preservation of foods in the absence of refrigeration. It was so important in daily life that it gave rise to our word “salary” which comes from the Latin, salarium, which was a Roman soldier’s pay to be used for the purchase of salt. You couldn’t have soldiers underperforming on the battlefield for the lack of salt. “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus is telling them. You are something absolutely essential for the survival of the human race. People need you, people will seek you out, people will treasure you for the blessing, like salt, that you are.

Likewise essential for human life and community is light. Who can work in the dark? Who can care for others in the dark? Who can create art and music and beauty in the dark? “You are the light of the world,” Jesus tells them. You make possible everything humans need to do to not only survive, but to thrive, to experience the shalom of God, the peace and wholeness God has in mind for the whole creation. Cursed beings do not produce light. They hide in the shadows, they hide from the light. But blessed are you by God, made to shine like the sun, the very light of the world, and people will seek you out to live.

I’ve conveniently left out for a moment half of what Jesus said about each of these metaphors for the life of the discipleship, to focus on this aspect of blessing. But Jesus also reminds them that as a result of this blessing they have a responsibility to continue to be what they have become. They have not changed themselves into the essential elements of salt and light; only God has done that through Jesus Christ. They may not have been made those things, but they are called to remain those things, to share their blessing with the world. And so the reminder to keep pure your saltiness, to let it remain uncontaminated by elements which will reduce its saltiness and render it worthless. Salt does not lose its flavor through chemical degradation, but by being mixed with that which is not salt. And so too the reminder to put that light on a lampstand, rather than under a basket. A candle or oil lamp placed under a basket will go out for the lack of oxygen. A blessing revealed cannot be a blessing to others if it is not cared for and nurtured as the gift of God it truly is.

Jesus follows up this reminder of blessing and responsibility by giving them a reminder of the source of their strength for the task, namely God’s word. “I have not come to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill them…And I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This is a high standard indeed, is it not? But they are not left without the means to do it: faith in Jesus Christ, his teachings in that Sermon on the Mount, and the church he would leave behind, a church that makes it its business to nurture those to whom God reveals that they are the salt of the earth, and the light of the world, people like you and me, and people like the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts whose adherence to oaths and laws and good turns we celebrate this day.

In the 1959 edition of the Scout Handbook is a wonderful 1959 kind of way to describe doing a good turn. It’s still worth a listen 60 years later: “The Scout slogan is ‘Do a Good Turn Daily.’ It is part of the third point of the Scout Law – ‘A Scout is helpful.’ And it is part of your Scout Oath – ‘… to help other people at all times.’ The slogan does not mean for you to do one Good Turn during the day and then stop. On the contrary, it means to do at least one Good Turn a day. It means looking for opportunities to help and then helping, quietly and without boasting.

When you first become a Scout, it may seem difficult for you to find a daily chance to do a Good Turn. But soon you learn to keep your eyes open and somehow there seems to be an opportunity around every corner. By acting on them, you prove yourself a real Scout. Some Good Turns are big things; saving a human life at the risk of losing your own… rescue work in floods… service in hurricane-stricken areas… helping to fight a forest fire… working with your patrol on a conservation project… giving younger boys a good time in Cub Scouting by working as a den chief. But Good Turns more often are small things, thoughtful things; helping a child cross the street… clearing trash off the highway… picking up broken glass from the street… telephoning the power company to report a live wire. Remember always that a Good Turn is an extra act of kindness, not just something you do because it is good manners. To answer the inquiry of a passer-by about an address is not a Good Turn, that is common courtesy. But to go out of your way to take the traveler to his destination, that is a Good Turn.”

Jesus has shown us how to be prepared, and how to do our best. Let us encourage one another, and our Scouts, to maintain our saltiness, and to keep our light shining where it can be seen. God may be the one who keeps the world turning, but we must be the ones to do our good turns. Amen.