Salt and Light: Jesus on the Burdens of Chosenness

Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven. Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.
—Matthew 13:13-16

The first thing we must grapple with in interpreting the “salt and light” passage from the Sermon on the Mount is that Jesus does not speak in the form of a command. He does not say, “be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.” He does not even make it a suggestion, like, “it would be really cool if you guys could be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.” There is nothing in the grammar to suggest that he is instructing us to be salt or light at all.

This in itself is curious, since Jesus is quite capable of issuing direct imperatives, even when speaking metaphorically (“be wise as serpents and harmless as doves,” Matt 10:16). And he seldom hesitates to explain the connection that his metaphors make (“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin,” Matt 6:27). Nowhere else does he simply tell people that they are something and then expect them to figure out what he wants them to do.

And then we have the problem of the conclusion. Why, after telling people that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, does Jesus launch into a defense of the Mosaic Law? When does he assure his audience that he has not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it? What does that have to do with salt and light?

This all makes sense, though when we consider the context that Jesus shared with his audience—followers of the Law of Moses who already considered themselves to be the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world” because these were both metaphors they used to describe the Law and the Covenant that they had with God.

Both of these comparisons occur in the text of the Hebrew Bible. Salt has long been used to describe both the Torah and the Abrahamic covenant. The Lord commands the Israelites in Leviticus 2:13 to include “the salt of the covenant” in all their offerings. Talmudic sources elaborate on this considerably, saying “the world cannot exist without salt, without pepper and without spices . . . . So, too, it is impossible for the world to exist without Scripture, without Mishnah, and without the Shas. (Tractate Soferim 15:8).

The Torah is also directly compared to a “light” in Proverbs 6:23, which reads, in the Hebrew Bible, “For a commandment is a candle, and the Torah is light, and disciplining rebukes are the way of life.” And Isaiah famously compared the “covenant of the people” to “a light of the nations” (Isa 42:6).

So, when Jesus tells his audience that they are “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world,” he is not telling them what they should become; rather, he is acknowledging their own narrative about who they are—a covenanted people with a sacred text and a special relationship to God—and then turns the same narrative back on them with a twist. Salt is only valuable if it contributes to other people’s well-being. If it just sits there and tries to be salty, it has no value. Same with light. It only matters if it shows somebody the way. If you light a candle and put it under a clay pot, then the fact of it being a candle ceases to matter.

In reframing these narratives, Jesus shifts the idea of a covenant relationship with God. It is not, as many supposed, a sign of privilege or a guarantee of salvation. It is rather a burden that increases expectations and, therefore, accountability. Having a unique scripture doesn’t make people better, or more favored, or more likely to please God. It makes them uniquely accountable to God to do something worthwhile with the knowledge they have. I suspect that, if he were to deliver the Sermon on the Mount in Utah, he would say, “You are the Beehive State, and you are all very busy. But if bees don’t make honey and give sweetness to the world, then they are just annoying little stinging bugs that deserve to be stepped on or swatted with a newspaper.”

We gain nothing of value simply by defining ourselves into a category—be it “Christian,” or “Latter-day Saint,” or “priesthood-holder” or “truth-haver,” or whatever. To the extent that these categories matter, they matter because they give us the tools and the knowledge that we need to improve the lives of other people—not by trying to convince them to be like us and believe what we believe, but by doing tangible things to comfort the afflicted, shelter the homeless, welcome the stranger, and heal the broken world.


  1. This happens to be a lesson I have taught, to much the same effect but not nearly so well. That’s not to criticize, but to praise and give thanks. Keep it up. This series (still deniable but pretty obvious as a series) is an important part of my religious practice for 2023.

  2. They don’t have to be like us, but they deserve to enter into a covenantal relationship. The covenants, ordinances and authority are found only in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.

  3. I so agree. The church, at times, spends so much time in us being missionaries. Not enough on, let’s just be good Christians!

  4. Aussie Mormon says:

    “Proverbs 6:26”

    Pretty sure vs 23 is the one you meant.

  5. Indeed.

  6. Just wanted to echo Christian’s sentiment. I haven’t commented on any posts so far, but this series has been really meaningful to me and helped me to better engage with the Gospels. Many thanks Michael

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: