I find myself nodding along as I read the first twelve verses of Matthew 5. I want to be a peacemaker and honor others who have committed to seeking peace. I pray that I will be merciful to others. However, verses 13-16 prompt a different, more visceral, reaction. In particular, the poetic reminder to be salt, light, and a city on a hill causes me to examine my need for humility.
Matthew 5:13-16 is beautifully fashioned and inspiring. Yet throughout my years of following the Master Teacher, the overuse or potential misuse of these verses has led me to a place of cynicism. Instead of focusing on being a positive model, a sense of privilege and superiority seemed to be communicated with the admonishment to be a city on a hill. Look to us as examples. Be exemplary and make sure your lantern is polished and perfect, your salt cellar tidy and attractive. The emphasis was on the external and the focus on the striving, although the goal of exhibiting the attributes was still beguiling.
In my current role of teacher educator, I find that many of my MA TESOL students struggle with conceptualizing what it means to be a follower of the Master and a teacher. Some students rather forcibly let others know how they will be salt and light and part of the city on a hill—love their students, be diligent in grading, work hard in preparation. All of these are good, even great, but not necessarily unique to followers of the Master. Other students shy away from making any claims of saltiness or light in order not to offend their students—power dynamics and histories of hegemony bind them to respect for all. A reason for my students’ struggle is that they are working to conceptualize what they will do and consequently create a list of acceptable actions for a salty, light-bearing teacher.
As I reflect on salt and light and when they have been most evident, it has been less about doing and more about being. When the focus is on hard work and building an impressive city, English learners also notice that they need to be “perfect” to be noticed by the teacher. When teachers are reliant on the Master in order to teach and humbly approach the class as both learner and teacher, the response is quite different.
Some classes stand out because of the sense that something supernatural occurred, often when the teacher was exhibiting salt and light from a place of humility. There was no announcement that the city on the hill had been built or concern about the quality of the lamp. Humility allowed students to feel seen and understood. The teacher listened to students’ stories, honored their suffering, heard their desires, celebrated their achievements, and encouraged their dreams.
When salt and light are humbly offered, there is space to care for others. The teacher is being changed and challenged through the renewal of the mind and spirit that came through an active willingness to consider others. When teachers care less about perfection, students feel safe. Students don’t name this as salt or light but rather use words like different, safe, peaceful, or changed. The teachers still grade in a timely manner and prepare excellent classes, but they also create space for students to share themselves with each other and the teacher. You can’t fake salt and light or force it to appear through outward actions, but when it is there “they may see your good deeds and glorify” the Master Teacher.
 Kris McDaniel, “Matthew 5:13-20,” Sermon, Trinity Anglican Mission, Atlanta, GA, February 10, 2014.  Matthew 5:16.
Have you experienced classes where something supernatural seemed to take place? What do you attribute it to?
What practices or attitudes have helped you in your cultivation of salt and light?
Tasha Bleistein is an MA TESOL Associate Professor and the Director of the Online MA TESOL Program at Azusa Pacific University. She taught in Honduras for 2 years, China for 9 years, and in community colleges in Oregon for 2 years before moving into teacher education.