Have you ever looked in the mirror and been unhappy with what you see?
Most of us have, at some point or other. We’re unhappy with the way we look, or the clothes we wear, or the house we live in, or the life we’re living.
Advertising executives make a fortune by promoting and manipulating that impulse within us. If only we buy this product, they say, our unhappiness and self-doubt will simply fade away. With their help, they say, we can be as happy and beautiful as the people we see in TV commercials.
It’s all lies, of course. We all know that advertisers are really just trying to get us to spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need in order to impress people we don’t like.
But here’s the thing: in order to effectively sell the lie, advertisers are preying upon a very real fear and very real desire that exist within each of us. The fear is that there is something wrong or missing inside of us, something that would make us profoundly happy, if only we had possession of it. The desire is the drive to be something other than who we are.
Want to look young and attractive forever? Buy this cream! Want to be an adventurous tough guy? Smoke the same cigarettes as the Marlboro man!
Religious advertisers have gotten in on this action too. Want to be free of that gnawing sense of guilt and loneliness? Join this church! Read this book! Attend this conference!
What all of the above have in common, from cigarettes to church conferences, is the claim to cure our sense of inner emptiness by way of some outside product. They claim that they can make us into something other than what we are. And it’s all a lie.
Christ, on the other hand, does the opposite. He offers us no quick-fix product or easy 3-step solution to our insecurities. On the contrary, Christ saves us by bringing us more deeply into who we already are.
In today’s gospel, Christ uses two images to describe this process: salt and light.
He begins by telling his followers, “You are the salt of the earth.” Salt, as we know, is a seasoning for food. We don’t typically eat it by itself; we put it on other things. It adds flavor. But what would happen if salt somehow lost its taste? Jesus tells us, “It is no longer good for anything”.
The second thing Christ tells his followers is, “You are the light of the world.” Light adds visibility to a dark room. If we hide it under a basket, we’ve lost the point of having light altogether. It belongs out in the open.
The common ground between salt and light is that they both add something to something else, whether it’s flavor to a meal or visibility to a room. Their presence deepens the experience of life. And they do this, not by becoming something else, but by being precisely what they are. Salt tastes salty by nature; light is bright by nature.
In the same way, Christ’s saving work in our lives is a process by which we gradually discover, embrace, and embody the image of God within us. The Christian saints of the East call this process ‘theosis’ or ‘divinization’.
According to Eastern Orthodox theologians, the ‘Image of God’ is who we really are inside. It is that part of our deepest selves that reflects something unique about God to the world. We humans can tarnish or cover this image by our sin, but we can never fully erase it.
The redemption won for us in Christ removes the dross of our sin, restores the flavor of our saltiness, and removes the basket from over our flame so that our inner light can be more clearly seen by the world. And this inner light is not our own, but only a reflection of God’s light, just as moonlight is a reflection of sunlight.
This is how Christ’s plan of salvation differs from that of advertising executives and Pharisees. The Pharisees were a religious group who promoted the product of biblical law as a way to change people into something other than what they are. The Pharisees said, “Come to us and follow our program, and you will be acceptable to God.”
They had a very public reputation for being very pious and righteous, so it must have been very disconcerting when Jesus said to his followers, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Who was more righteous than a Pharisee? Jesus might as well have said, “You have to be more Catholic than the Pope” or “climb higher than Mount Everest” to enter the kingdom of heaven. Such an order would have seemed hopeless to the average person.
And I think that’s exactly the point that Jesus was trying to get across. It is hopeless. You can’t get there from here. If you’re trying to win your way into God’s good graces by becoming something other than what you already are, the battle is already over and you’ve lost.
Ironically, the path to holiness leads, not farther away from sin, but deeper into it. We exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees by admitting that we can never live up to it. We ascend by descending. The first step toward finding a solution is facing the problem. The fulfillment of the law begins with our failure to uphold it.
This way of thinking runs counter to the logic of our consumer culture, which brainwashes us to run away and hide from our brokenness, fearing that we could never be loved if others knew what we really are.
The promise of Christ, the “double-dog-dare” of grace, is that there is indeed a light within you. A light that was placed there by God and shaped to reflect God’s own light in a way that is utterly unique in the world. This light is our true beauty, and we will not find it by running away from what we are. We find it by grace, which gives us the faith to remove the baskets from over our candles and “let [our] light shine before others, so that they may see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father in heaven.”