by Timothy L. Decker, Th.M.
Often, the metaphor of salt and light used by Jesus in Matthew 5:13–16 is interpreted and treated as if they fell from heaven apart from the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. This article will argue that one should read the salt and light statements in vv. 13–16 in light of the preceding context of the beatitudes. Further, I contend that the final beatitude in vv. 11–12 is thematically and syntactically related to the salt and light of vv. 13–16 and serve as a transition between the beatitudes proper in vv. 3–10 and the salt and light statements. If such is the case, then the significance of reading vv. 11–12 with vv. 13–16 drastically changes the tone of the salt/light metaphor due to the contextual relationship with persecution.
The Beatitudes Debate
There is neither sufficient space nor is it this writer’s intention to adequately and exhaustively answer the question over the number of beatitudes. However, some interesting notes can be made as it pertains to the structure of the beatitudes that will bear significance on the place of vv. 11–12 and ultimately how that will be contextually related to vv. 13–16.
Despite Augustine’s seven beatitudes or Betz’s ten, the general consensus is really between eight beatitudes and nine. The dispute is whether vv. 11–12 constitutes a similar but separate beatitude from that of v. 10 or if it is simply an expansion of v. 10. Even here, it is unnecessary to stake a position on the numbers since it is neither relevant to the topic of this paper nor indicative of the argument being postulated. Nonetheless, some points are to be made as to vv. 11–12’s relationship between the beatitudes proper of vv. 3–10 and the salt and light statements of vv. 13–16.
First, it is reasonable to take vv. 3–10 as the “beatitudes proper” in light of what many identify as an inclusio through the identical statements ὂτι αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν (“for theirs is the reign of heaven”) in both v. 3 and v. 10. The transition from third person to second person in v. 11 also goes with much notice. Finally, the generally positive tone of blessing in the beatitudes is markedly different from the despair of persecution mentioned in vv. 11–12.
On the other hand, the obvious tie with the introductory μακὰριοι (“blessed”) as well as the similar theme of persecution between v. 10 and vv. 11–12 clearly mark out vv. 11–12 as having some relationship with the beatitudes proper. Allison noted an important aspect in the construction and history of the beatitudes. Within the ancient literature of the day that featured the μακαριος series constructions similar to Matt. 5, it was quite normal to conclude the series with a final, elongated makarism, which would often change person. This is his strongest argument for seeing vv. 11–12 as the ninth and final beatitude in a series and sermon composed of highly detailed structuring around 3’s and multiples of 3’s (such as nine beatitudes).
How does one solve this dilemma of similarity and dissimilarity? The evidence does not demand an “either/or” interpretation. It seems that there is enough likeness yet uniqueness in vv. 11–12 that it can neither be read as part of the beatitudes proper nor can it be removed from the beatitudes as a whole. One is left with the natural conclusion that vv. 11–12 are primarily acting as a transition from the beatitudes to the salt and light statements of vv. 13–16.
A final word on the matter will suffice. Some commentators point out that in the sermon itself, some passages serve as a conclusion to one section and an introduction to another. Therefore, in order to keep the multiples-of-three balance and yet distinguish vv. 11–12 enough from the first eight beatitudes, it seems reasonable to conclude that vv. 11–12 are functioning much the same way as other passages in the sermon, such as 5:20 and 6:19–21 both of which relate with what precedes as well as what follows. This brings the transitional nature of vv. 11–12 to its richest literary context in that it serves multiple functions, not least of which is to conclude the beatitudes as the final beatitude. This, however, does not hinder linking vv. 11–12 with vv. 13–16 since there are clear associations as well. Therefore, the root cause over the division of vv. 11–12 in light of vv. 3–10 and vv. 13–16 is very likely over the overlapping feature of vv. 11–12. This hardly solves the debate over the number of beatitudes, but perhaps it does help to move the debate forward if in only a minor way.
Considering vv. 11–12 as transitional in nature and function, two nearly obvious conclusions present themselves. First is that vv. 13–16 are not to be isolated from the preceding context. Though often referred to as if stated in a vacuum away from any context, the evangelist constructed the salt and light statements in a context by virtue that they were introduced with a transitional thought. The very purpose of a transition is to link or make a contextual relationship between what was said with what is about to be said. This leads to the second conclusion in that one most naturally reads vv. 13–16 in light of what precedes rather than on its own or with what follows. This is determined again by the nature of the transition of vv. 11–12. Additionally, further indicators bring this out as well. First is the thematic link of the visibility of “good deeds” mentioned in v. 16 explained in the behavior of those practicing the beatitudes. Second is the possibility of another inclusio on the word “heaven” this time bracketing all of vv. 3–16 together.
Vv. 11–16 as a Thematic Unit
It is from this point that we can narrow the contextual relationship a bit further. Since one may reasonably conclude that vv. 13–16 is related to the beatitudes in some way (and even more so with vv. 11–12 due to its transitory nature), then deeper discovery can be drawn to unearth the relationship of vv. 11–12 with vv. 13–16 as well as vv. 3–16 as a whole.
It would no doubt be exegetical suicide to insinuate that the actual pericope of the salt and light statements begins in v. 11 or worse that vv. 11–16 make a syntactical pericope. However, the transitory nature of vv. 11–12 links together with vv. 13–16 on a thematic level primarily and a syntactical level secondarily, although this thematic link can be best brought to the surface by first establishing the syntactical link. Nevertheless, one must not miss this link, for it has a huge bearing on the tone of the salt and light statements.
As mentioned above, v. 11 transitions from the third person singular beatitude to the second person plural beatitude. This transition, though subtle it may be, serves multiple purposes. First, as already stated, the change in persons helps to set vv. 11–12 off as a transition to vv. 13–16. The second purpose of the change to second person is to syntactically link vv. 11–12 with 13–16. The exhortation in vv. 11–12 can be equated syntactically with the statements and exhortations of vv. 13–16 due to the fact that they are made in the second person verbally (“you are”) or pronominally (“your light”, “your good works”, and “your Father”). In one sense, it is as if the evangelist meant vv. 13–16 to be read in direct connection with what preceded when the switch to second person plural occurred.
Such a syntactical connection makes thematic connections much more plausible; in this case, it is the evil/good theme. Verse 11 mentions the persecutors uttering all kinds of evil (πᾶν πονηρὸν), whereas v. 16 contrasts the exposure of “your good works” (ὑμῶν τὰ καλὰ ἔργα). This evil/good contrast is observed throughout the sermon between the rain on the good and evil (5:45), the good and evil eye (6:22–23), evil people and good gifts (7:11), and the good and evil fruit (7:17–19). The evil/good contrast in 5:11, 16 is further enhanced in 1 Peter 2:12, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (ESV). Most likely, this is a reference to Matt. 5:11 and 16 connecting the contrast of evil and good. The weight of this connection is that the themes of speaking evil and doing good are thematically related together as if the author of 1 Peter understood Matt. 5:11–16 (or the Jesus tradition from which he is following) as a cohesive unity.
These syntactical and thematic ties lead to the final conclusion that vv. 11–12 and vv. 13–16 are closely related, so closely in fact that vv. 13–16 should not be isolated from but read in connection with vv. 11–12 (and vv. 11–12 be read in connection with vv. 3–10). If this conclusion is correct, then the following observations are to be made. First, as acknowledged previously but now strengthened, the salt and light statements are not to be isolated nor interpreted as if it was written in a vacuum. To interpret it away from its contextual relationship with vv. 3–12 will damage the tone of the salt and light statements. Second and most significant, the salt and light statements must be read in light of the missional and persecution themes of vv. 11–12.
This is the point where a radical shift in interpretation takes place. No longer can interpreters treat salt and light as an isolated metaphor that has a weightless tone to it. The evangelist placed it in the context of drastic mission and severe persecution. Though often used as a simple metaphor to the mission of Jesus’ disciples to expose the truth of the gospel to the world, what is missing from such a presentation of Jesus’ call to be salt and light is the certainty of persecution that follows. The tone of vv. 13–16 is passionate, pleading, frightening, and alarming. It his highly symbolic yet not to be taken lightly. It is a call for the disciple to take up the mantle of persecution for the sake of the knowledge of Jesus. Thus also accompanied to Jesus’ call to follow is the caution to “count the cost.” To be salt and light is to be persecuted for the sake of the gospel.
As a result, vv. 13–16 serve to answers multiple questions. First is the question, why will persecution exist? In one sense, the disciples will suffer the same fate as the prophets who went before them; that much is observed from v. 12. In another sense, they would be performing the mission of the prophets as salt and light to the nation of Israel as well as to the world thus incurring the wrath of both for this mission. It is because the disciples are fulfilling the call to be salt and light that they will experience persecution.
The second purpose of vv. 13–16 in light of its connections with vv. 11–12 is that it answers the question, what is a disciple to do that would cause persecution? Jesus would elaborate on this in Matthew 10. There, he admits that he is dooming his disciples to a task that will bring persecution. He says they will be brought before leaders in order to be “a witness to them and to the Gentiles” (Matt. 10:18), which recalls Matt. 5:11 and those persecuted “on my account.” Their task is one of proclamation whereby the Holy Spirit will speak through them (10:19–20). Most significantly as it relates to the salt and light statements is 10:27a, “What I tell you in the dark, say in the light…” (italics added). The evangelist is linking persecution, light, and the praxis of salt and light together. In other words, the call to be salt and light is a call to God’s mission wherein the disciples are to testify of God’s rule to the world. Consequently, the question of what one is to do is expanded and clarified in the third question.
Reading vv. 13–16 in light of the impending persecution of vv. 11–12 answers the third question, what is a disciple to be that will bring down such wrath from the world? Suffice it to say that to be Salt and Light, Jesus was calling his disciples to be the true Israel of God thereby fulfilling the mission of Israel to be a light to the nations. Only a mission extreme as that could incur the kind of persecution mentioned in vv. 11–12 (and Matt. 10).