Matthew 5:13 is often disassociated from the Beatitudes, as nearly every Bible printed in the English language separates the contents of verses 1-12 from what follows. Yet, this consistent separation of the two passages impoverishes what Matthew’s gospel is communicating to us here.
Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount by telling his disciples that in God’s upside down kingdom, the blessed ones are those that the world considers despised: the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn, etc. Jesus speaks these beatitudes to his disciples, reminding them that although their lives might not have turned out as they would have hoped, they are still “blessed.” What follows in the verses immediately subsequent to the Beatitudes is the charge for those who are blessed: to let their light shine and to exhibit the flavor of God’s kingdom. The evidence that one actually understands oneself to be blessed of God is how bright their light shines in the world and how flavorful one’s life is to others. Even when we mourn, when we are made fun of and ridiculed, when we are longing, hungering, and thirsting for more in this life - we must let our light shine before men. Jesus doesn’t let the down and out off the hook easy here. Rather, he calls them to live a life of fullness despite feeling empty. To combine Matthew 5:1-12 with Matthew 5:13-16 actually provides a rather difficult teaching, and one that is completely counter-cultural to the self-help and self-care gospels being promoted in the world today. Jesus essentially says here, “You might feel like your life sucks, but you need to realize that you are blessed by God! You still need to let your light shine and be the salt of the earth.” Essentially, in the moments of life that it is most difficult to exhibit the attributes of the Kingdom of God, those are the moments that our lives are most fully on display.
It is in the next verses, Matthew 5:17-20, that Matthew gives us Jesus’ ultimate project in the Sermon of the Mount – the fulfillment of the Law of Moses. Matthew’s Gospel narrates Jesus as a Mosaic figure. Like Moses, he is born under the rule of a tyrant king who hunts and kills baby boys (Jesus even spends time as a refugee in Egypt with his parents). In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus begins his ministry by spending 40 days in the wilderness, just as Moses and the people of Israel spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness prior to the fulfillment of their own promised life. Following a time of temptation in the wilderness, Jesus goes up on a mountain and provides commentary on the very laws that Moses received at Mount Sinai. Jesus says, “You have heard Moses say, ‘Do not commit adultery, but I say…’ ‘You have heard Moses say, ‘Do not murder, but I say…’ ”
In this way, the Sermon on the Mount can be seen as somewhat audacious. Jesus, a young rabbi, is teaching his disciples that the Law of Moses is actually brought to fulfillment and fullness in his own teaching. Many understand Matthew’s Gospel to provide the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy, that one day Israel would be a people on whom the laws of Moses were actually written on their hearts. Jesus is taking the law that was inscribed on tablets of stone and contending that in order to fulfill them, his disciples need to soften their hearts. This teaching, in a way, also fulfills the prophecy of Ezekiel, that God is taking the hearts of stone from Israel and generating in them hearts of flesh. Jesus enfleshes the law.
It is also here that Jesus stresses taking the actual adherence of the law further than Israel’s own religious leaders. There is a popular idea today that Christianity has in some ways replaced adherence to the law with an adherence to the law of the Spirit. While I realize that Paul in Galatians is excited about the possibilities of life in the Spirit and the freedom that comes from it, Jesus in Matthew wants us to recognize that the law is a starting point and foundation for a standard of righteousness that pleases God. Matthew’s Gospel does not allow for Christians to dismiss the law, in fact, it does just the opposite.
Although Matthew 5:13-20 is the lectionary reading for this week, I contend that this passage is particularly unfortunate as a unit. Verses 13-16 belong to verses 1-12, and verses 17-20 provide the main thesis of the Sermon on the Mount. If one is preaching this passage, I would advise separating the verses as I have above. This passage division (in my personal opinion), is one of the casualties of the desire to not make lectionary passages too lengthy. My personal advice would be to plan accordingly, and to provide connection points for your people to the scriptures surrounding this passage.