Early in the first semester of his junior year at Columbia, Sandy Greenberg unexpectedly lost his sight from glaucoma. Depressed by his sudden blindness and unable to imagine any kind of meaningful future for himself, he dropped out of Columbia. But his girlfriend, Sue and his roommate, Arthur, who was also his best friend, wouldn’t let him just sink into self-pity. Sue and Arthur talked Sandy into returning to Columbia and stuck by him, taking turns reading his textbooks to him and helping him study.
Blindness required Sandy to make some serious adjustments in his life and to learn a whole new set of skills. Sue and Arthur had to make adjustments, too, to keep their promise to Sandy, but they navigated it all with wry humor. Arthur started calling himself Darkness because Sandy told him one day that he had become a disembodied voice in the darkness.
All that work paid off. Sandy went on to earn two Master’s degrees, was a Marshall Scholar at Oxford, and earned a Ph.D. from Harvard. He started two companies and invented and patented several new audio technologies. He was the Johnson Administration’s Staff Coordinator for tech development, working with the Defense Department and the State Department. He served on the Council on Foreign Relations, became a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and has served as the Chairman of the Board of Governors of Johns Hopkins University’s Wilmer Eye Institute. But we’re getting ahead of the story here.
One day while he was in Grad School at Columbia, Sandy got a phone call from his old friend Darkness. Arthur had been singing in clubs and coffee houses with an old pal from high school, and the two of them wanted to record an album, so Arthur called his best friend to see if he could borrow $400 to pay for studio time. Sandy and Sue—they were married now—only had $404 in the bank, but they gave all the money to Arthur without hesitation. The album was a flop and didn’t really go anywhere, but one of the songs was released as a single and became a huge hit. That song was The Sound of Silence. You know, the one that begins, “Hello darkness my old friend…”
Art Garfunkel was a light in the darkness for Sandy when Sandy lost his sight. Sandy salted the slippery road to success for Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon so their career could get traction.
“You”—that’s you plural, all y’all—”You are salt of the earth,” said Jesus. He was giving us a high standard to live up to. Salt was and is one of the most useful and valuable things in the world.
Salt has always been used to bring out the flavors in food. So all y’all enhance the flavor of the earth.
People have known since prehistoric times that salt is a biological necessity. Our bodies and the bodies of almost all animals use salt to absorb and transport nutrients, to maintain blood pressure, to maintain proper fluid balances, to transmit nerve signals and to contract and relax muscles. So you all are the transmitter and balancer of life for the earth. All y’all are necessary for the survival of the earth.
Salt has been used since ancient times to cleanse and disinfect wounds. So you all are the disinfectant of the earth. You cleanse the wounds of abuse and oppression. You sanitize hearts and minds infected with lies and old hatreds.
Salt was used to preserve meat and fish and other perishables. So all y’all are the preservative of the earth. You preserve the things that nourish, sustain and energize the world.
Salt, in Jewish understanding, was a symbol of the permanence of God’s covenant and grains of salt were placed on the lips of 8-day old babies during the rites of purification. So you all are the living reminder of God’s permanent promise to the earth.
Salt was believed to offer protection against evil spirits. So you all are the guardians of the goodness of the earth who stand against evil.
Salt was sometimes as valuable ounce for ounce as gold so it was frequently used as money. Roman soldiers received part of their wages in salt. That part of their compensation was called salarium argentum or “salt silver,” and it’s where we get our word salary. So all y’all are money, baby. You all are the currency of the earth.
You all are the salt of the earth. That’s how essential and valuable Jesus wants us to be in the world. And just to make sure we get the point, he shifts metaphors.
“You”—and again, it’s plural, all y’all—“You are the light of the world.”
You all are bringing the light of truth to a world that all too often likes to obscure its real motives in the shadows of untruth, half-truth, treachery and duplicity.
You all are the light of goodness and generosity that can keep the world from stumbling off a cliff in the moonless night of narcissism, greed, selfishness, self-indulgence and self-absorption.
You all are the light of faith and hope that keeps the world from crashing onto the rocks of despair.
You all are the light of love that guides the world toward a brighter day.
Let your light shine, said Jesus—not with spiritual arrogance or ostentatious piety, but with the simple brightness of caring for each other. Let your light shine by speaking up for each other, especially those who have no voice. Let your light shine by standing up for each other, especially when you are standing up for justice and fairness. You, together, are the light of the world.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish,” said Jesus, “but to fulfill.” Jesus was mobilizing us to live a visible life of righteousness in this world—to be a visible sign of God’s righteousness alive and at work in this world.
Righteousness is a central theme in the Gospel of Matthew, but righteousness is also understood in a particular way in this gospel.
“I tell you,” said Jesus, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” That sounds pretty daunting. After all, the scribes and the Pharisees were famous for being fastidious in keeping the law; they were the public face of legalistic righteousness. But Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, had a different definition of righteousness.
The Greek word for “righteousness” is dikaiosyne. It’s a compound word formed from dike which means “just” or “fair,” and syne which means together. In Matthew’s gospel, righteousness doesn’t describe intransigent legalism, it describes instead a sense of justice and fairness rooted in compassion. The word has a communal character. It describes an ethic rooted in community. In chapter 1, Joseph is called righteous because in his compassion for Mary he didn’t want to expose her to public disgrace. When John the Baptist tries to prevent Jesus from being baptized, Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus immersed himself in the waters of John’s baptism of repentance not because he needed to repent, but in order to show that he was united with and in solidarity with all those who do repent. It was a righteous act. In chapter 25, in Matthew’s description of the final judgment, the righteous are the ones who feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, house the homeless stranger, and care for the sick and visit those in prison. These are the people who hear Jesus say, “‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (25:34)
When Jesus tells us we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, he is calling us to be living examples of God’s kind-hearted, compassionate, and frankly practical righteousness. He is, in short, telling us to take care of each other. He is telling us to treat each other like friends.
Art Garfunkel was a light in the darkness for Sandy Greenberg when Sandy lost his sight. By that same light of righteousness, Sandy went on to bring understanding, peace and health to countless others. Sandy salted the slippery road to success for Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon so their career could get traction, and from that $404 worth of salt, Simon and Garfunkel’s music has since brought untold joy and beauty to the world. The ripples of their friendship and kindness to each other have spread out into the world in ways beyond counting or telling. That’s what happens when we are salt and light. That’s what real righteousness looks like.