Salt and light: a call to witnessing

The Blessed Lord uses two metaphors to speak to the witnessing life of his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew 5: 13-16. They are the famous lines—”you are the salt of the earth” and “you are the light of the world.” This reflection sheds light on these two metaphors and what they mean for the Christian witness.

Salt and light communicate the same message—the relevance of Christian witnessing in the world, community, family, relationships, and everyday life. But they speak about two unique ways this witnessing must occur. People experience salt when they taste it. People experience light once it shines. Salt is related to closeness and intimacy; Light is related to distance, for it is in the context of distance that we define the intensity of light.  

You need intimacy to experience salt; that is, you need to taste it to experience it. In addition, for preservatives, salt needs to touch the material to serve the preservative role. Therefore, closeness or intimacy is necessary when people use salt.

On the contrary, you do not need intimacy to see the light. Distance is necessary to experience light. When light shines, people far and near (depending on the intensity levels) see it unless there is something in-between blocking it. When it is daylight, all see the light.

Thus, light is the external expression of witnessing, and salt is the internal experience of witnessing. Another way to describe both metaphors is that light relates to things we do that are either public or could be seen through public testimonies. Salt is about our private lives. Bearing witness must occur in both.

Salt and Light in Christian Life

How do these metaphors relate to the daily Christian life?

Studies in evangelization, from the Greek Evangelisomai, help to elucidate. Evangelisomai means the bearer of the good news. In the Old Testament, the word is about someone whose presence brings good tidings. Why? Because the person signals to the community that good news is coming. By seeing the person, the community already knows that their feet bring good news (see Isaiah 52:7). The person is like light.

Consider the example of the pet in your house. Once it sees the owner returning home with a particular package or making a specific movement, it already knows that a treat is on the way. Likewise, the beautiful dog or cat or horse already knows that the owner’s movements are like light, bringing the news of joy. When the owner brings the treat, the pet enjoys it. This example also relates to salt and light.

Being the Salt of the Earth

What, then, is the salt? I see it in two ways. First, the salt preserves us in the spirit of what we do, retaining the sacred motive of our works. Second, it deepens our life, so when people come closer to us, they realize that it is indeed good, meaning that we try our best by the grace of God to be of good taste.

Our commitment to love the Lord and be faithful to his invitation preserves our good deeds. It is a deeper life, a life of holiness. It is the life that seeks the fruits of the spirit, as we read in Galatians 5, such as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (22-23). In other words, being the salt is a blend of our service to others and the world (our works) with the love of the Lord in our hearts.

People are always motivated and encouraged by our good work. However, they are much more inspired when they come closer to us and realize we are not simply activists for good causes or works but those who genuinely desire holiness. We are those who truly love people and love the Lord. We do not exploit the vulnerable. On the contrary, we try to live what we preach as much as possible. We are the salt of the earth and can be the inspiring light of the world.

Being the Light of the World

What, then, is being the light of the world?

We read Isaiah 58: 7-10 (the first reading). We hear God’s instruction to share our bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and homeless, clothe the naked, and not turn our backs on our own. Notice how God’s word relates this to light: “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn” (v. 8).

Hence, being the world’s light is more concrete in our works, which shine beyond us. Isn’t it what the Blessed Lord hinted at when he said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16)?

Therefore, if anyone asks what it means to be the light of the world, my most concrete answer is: It is the good deeds we do. The light of the world is all the corporal works of mercy, all the works that promote a just world. Those works shine, and people see them. Those works overcome darkness because the darkness in the world thrives where evil works are done. We speak of the dark life or dark side of human life because there are dark deeds in those places.

Should we Disconnect the Salt and Light?

Consider the scandals in the church in the past decades and throughout history. Many priests and religious who caused scandals in the church and society were actively involved in good works. Their good works shined. Then, when people come closer to them, if they aren’t salt, they cause more harm to the body of Christ.

Consider your own life experiences. How often do we know people who do so much good work, but when we come closer to them, the picture isn’t that good. They might be mean, unhappy, insecure, or unloving, creating a disconnect between the light and the salt.

In our spiritual journey, the Lord’s invitation is not the light or the salt invitation. Instead, the Lord’s invitation is for us to do both.

How Do We Do This?

Thus, how do I know that I am the light of the world if you ask me?

My answer will be in the form of a question that helps me examine my witnessing and provide the answer. Thus, how often do I get involved in the works of mercy? What are the testimonies to that effect?

These questions relate to being the light. They are much easier than the following second batch of questions about knowing if I’m the salt. How do people around me or those who come closer to me feel about my presence, words, and actions? What is their taste of me? Do I leave good taste in their moral and spiritual lives?

When a dad comes home, and everyone is worried, unhappy, and unsafe, there is a problem. When those who work with me feel that my presence does not bring much peace and inner calm to their soul, how am I a salt to them?

The charitable works I do matter. However, it is not only the gifts I give people that matter. It is also about the life I lead with them. This claim brings us back to the fundamental principle of the Christian life, namely, the unbroken relationship between faith and action, profession, and leading life through action.

Let our lights shine through our works, such is witness. Also, continuing to be the salt, beginning from home, is inspiring. Thus, to be the salt and light is our Christian invitation.

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Fr. Maurice Emelu

The Reverend Dr. Maurice Emelu is the Chair of a number of non-profit boards and a professor of digital media and communication at John Carroll University, United States. His research and practices focus on digital storytelling and design, media aesthetics and theo-aesthetics. Dr. Emelu lives where digital media technology meets culture, communication, philosophy, theology and society. He is the founder of Gratia Vobis Ministries, Inc. To know more about his professional background, visit

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