Salt & Light, who needs a city on a hill?

Mary Magdala Community

Thoughts on 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time,  February 9, 2020

by Rev. Jim Ryan,

Few lines of scripture are more often used, misused, and even abused than the theme of the city on the hill, especially in the USA.  It seems to me this line, as we heard it in today’s passage from Matthew’s Gospel has been quoted so far out of context that it is necessary to get it right, particularly in an American context.

So, let’s take a look at John Winthrop, Puritan Preacher, 1st Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and perhaps the first person to apply this line to the experience of living in the land that would come to be called New England.

We can apply many filters to these white settlers of the northeast region of the country – filters that show them to be colonizers who stole land from those who dwelled on the land for thousands of years, filters that show abuse of land, water, and livestock for the sake of material benefit, filters also of a religious faith that provides the kernel for prosperity gospel wherein accumulation of wealth is a distinct sign of God’s favor commanding no obligation upon the wealthy.

Even with these filters applied we can still learn lessons on how those settlers viewed the faith and the mission on which they set sail in 1630.  On the ship Arbella, some say in the early part of that year, the Puritan congregation was all attentive to the sermon their preacher, John Winthrop, was about to deliver.  He titled it, “A Model of Christian Charity.”  In it he spoke these words, “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”  With this use of Matthew 5:14 (today’s Gospel reading) what began as an exhortation to believers to acknowledge their mutual and collective responsibility to love and serve one another has ended up being a reference for justification of “Fortress America,” wealth and power grabbing America, and other images that are far, far from the first intent of the words.

It is a lesson in knowing full context.  For example, it is highly unlikely that you have also heard Winthrop’s words about wealthy people in this same sermon.  He explained that God made it possible for people to become wealthy so that they would lift up the poor.  Evidently these words got filtered out.

Context is so very important for us to get things right.  Let’s take this lesson and apply it to the whole Gospel of Matthew.  As an aside, but not without interest, this phrase, “city on a hill” has its own context.  John L. McKenzie, Jesuit biblical theologian, wrote in his article on the Gospel of Matthew in the original Jerome Biblical Commentary, that this phrase was most likely lifted from a well known saying common at the time of the gospel writer.  The line doesn’t actually fit with Jesus’ teaching about flavorful salt and house-filling light.  The writer may have just simply added the line, “a city on a hill cannot be hidden” as a bit of writer’s flourish.

Anyway, when you take a look at the larger context of the Gospel it is a message to the Jewish community.  Just as the Gospel of Mark was written to engage the wider world in the disciples’ first missionary efforts beyond Palestine, so Matthew directs itself to the Jews and the challenge given to them on how to deal with this Jesus, this Messiah, this once dead and now living person who inspires and guides those who follow him.

Take Resurrection, for example.  In Matthew there are only 3 paragraphs written about the resurrection event.  And one of those paragraphs is about the tomb guards being bought off to spread the story about body-snatching disciples.

In the other two paragraphs the only thing that speaks of a resurrection appearance is Jesus telling the women to deliver the message to the disciples that Jesus wants to meet them in Galilee.  In the last paragraph of Matthew Jesus meets them in Galilee, teaches them to baptize, and The End. No Ascension, No Promise of the Holy Spirit, No mention of End Time.

What’s going on here?

Jesus first speaks of resurrection in Matthew’s 22nd chapter in answer to a Sadducees test about the after life.  He says, “when people rise from the dead.” Notice he does not predict his own Resurrection or that he is God’s Chosen One.  He simply reminds the Jewish people that resurrection, though disbelieved by the Sadducees, is yet part and parcel of the faith they already have.

So, what does this have to do with salt and light?  Why look at Resurrection in this context?  Because, as John Winthrop reminded his adventurous congregation, we –collectively – are the presence and action of Christ in this world.  It occurs to me that the end of Matthew’s Gospel, with its minimalist focus on the Resurrected One, points us back to its beginning.  The beginning for those who gather to hear Jesus is the Beatitudes (last week’s Gospel).  The message is this New Law which the Jewish people can certainly understand.

Yes, the peacemakers are God’s children.

Yes, the comforters will receive comfort.

And yes, the wealthy are obliged to lift up the poor.

Context makes it as simple as that.  We have no need of looking for the One who was raised, walked out of the tomb, and took up leadership of those who need a boost for their faltering faith.

Context, the full story, says we are the Blessed Ones.  In our communion, in our identity as salt and light, we are Christ!


A Prayer  (JR)

Giving and receiving, we are Christ.

Loving and caring, we are Christ.

Dying and rising, we are Christ.

Waiting under frozen ground, we are Christ.

Word of Life, we are the stream that brings life to the desert;

Glory and praise to you from our hearts in all creation.




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