One important avenue for influencing others toward God is the good deeds we do. Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:13-16 gives us some helpful insight about this.
Twice in this passage Jesus uses the words, “You are.” The wording of the original text places some emphasis on the word “you.” That indicates the teaching here applies to his disciples in distinction to others. And the idea that “you are” salt or light shows that Jesus is thinking not merely of our deeds but our being or character. Influencing others is a matter not only of what we do but what we are.
In context, the being or character Jesus is referring to is described in the section that immediately proceeds, the beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12). There Jesus teaches that a certain kind of person is to be considered blessed or fortunate, and it is not the sort of person society would naturally think of. People who are humble, tender-hearted, meek, yearn to be right with God, merciful, pure in heart, seek peace with others, and live right in spite of the consequences are pleasing to God and highly regarded by him. Even if I missed the exact nuance of some of the beatitudes it is clear that the general idea is humble people who sincerely seek God.
Jesus says people with such authentic character are salt and light. Both of these have the ability to “influence” what is around them. Both are also “of the earth” or “of the world,” that is, they are different from the world but have the ability to provide something helpful to the world.
It’s difficult to know the exact nuance of Jesus’ reference to salt, and many ideas have been proposed. One that makes good sense to me keys off of “loses its saltiness.” The underlying word means to become insipid or tasteless. Being salt suggests that, in contrast to a dull, insipid or tasteless way of life, Christ-followers add flavor or quality to life. What we have gained from Christ can rub off on others in a positive way that is like adding salt to food that is otherwise flat. The rest of the teaching about salt emphasizes the need to hold on to our distinctive character. It is imperative that we not compromise who and what we are.
The reference to light seems clearer. Light enlightens people. It reveals things. It shows the way. The rest of the teaching about light emphasizes the need to let our lights shine and influence others toward God. Jesus’ words show that people who are light will also do good deeds (v. 16). Being leads to doing. His words also point out the need to shine our light properly. It also matters how we do those good deeds.
The little word “that” (hopos) (v. 16) is not the usual word for expressing a result nor the one for expressing a purpose, although it does sometimes indicate purpose. But the word can also indicate manner—“how, in what way, in what manner or by what means.” This meaning is reflected in the NASB: “Your light must shine before people in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your father in heaven.” There is definitely a right and wrong manner for doing good deeds. It matters how you shine your light.
When we lived in Philadelphia, our house was very close to those around us, and our “very involved” neighbors were always quick to tell us things they thought we needed to know. One night after arriving home late, we went inside, turned off all the lights on the main floor and headed upstairs. We heard a knock at the door, so we went down, pulled aside the little curtain over the window on the door, and peaked out. We were taken aback by a distorted, grotesque image of light and shadows! It was the elderly man from next door, holding a flashlight pointed upward from his chin, casting light and shadows on his face. In addition to telling us about yet another neighborhood infraction we had committed, he explained that he was shining his flashlight on his face so as not to scare us! It had quite the opposite effect. It’s not cool to shine the light on yourself.
Later I realized that I had done the same thing not many years before. I was in a training program in St. Louis, seeking to learn how to influence others toward Christ. One day while I was driving during an intense rainstorm, I saw a man on the side of the road with a flat tire. After hesitating, I decided to stop to help him change it. Afterward I invited him to a Bible study, which seems reasonable enough, but then I somehow got the “brilliant” idea of adding that, “not just anyone would stop to help you change your tire in the rain.” I now realize that shining the light on myself in that way was just as grotesque and off-putting as what my elderly neighbor would do some years later.
So what is the proper manner for shining one’s light? We have already indicated one aspect. It must be genuine. The deeds we do must emerge from a character that is being authentically changed by Jesus. It must be real.
In contrast to the tendency to shine our light on ourselves, we should also do our good deeds humbly. There is a real danger of doing what we do to make ourselves look good, and this must be avoided (Matthew 6:1-18). As Jesus’ brother wrote, the truly wise will show it “by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom” (James 3:13).
Somewhat related to this, we should also do our good deeds with no strings attached. When Jesus healed the ten lepers, only one came back to thank him. Jesus’ response indicates that he had hoped his good deed would have a similarly profound effect on all ten. But I’m pretty sure he did not “zap” the other nine with leprosy again for not responding (Luke 17:11-19). Jesus did good deeds with no strings attached.
The need to do good deeds genuinely, humbly, and with no strings attached, however, does not mean that we never say a word about what we have done. In Acts 3, the Lord used Peter to heal a man who was crippled and was begging for help at the Temple. When a crowd ran together in astonishment, Peter did not put on a false humility or downplay the good deed as “no big deal.” He made clear that it was not the result of his own power or godliness and then also stated that it was in the name of Jesus that the man had been healed (vv. 1-16). He also blended in the good news about Jesus with his explanation of how the man had been healed (vv. 13-26). It seems to me that we should also do our good deeds alertly, watching for any further opportunity the Lord may give us (Colossians 4:2-6, read post on this passage).
We can influence the world for good by being salt and light, and allowing our Christ-like character to lead us to do good deeds in an appropriate way. Perhaps you can think of other aspects of a fitting manner of doing our deeds, but it includes at least doing them genuinely, humbly, and freely, but also alert for opportunities to tell about the Christ who is empowering us to do them.
Is there an aspect of this powerful passage you need to tend to?