Cambridge, MA. As the Churches continue to read the Sermon on the Mount at Sunday Eucharist until the beginning of Lent, I will continue the series I started last week, Swami Prabhavananda’s reading of the Sermon in The Sermon on the Mount according to Vedanta. This Sunday’s portion is brief enough to quote: “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5.13-16, NRSV)
Prabhavananda sees Jesus’ first words, regarding the salt, as reminders to his listeners as to their identity: “In India, when a disciple comes to a teacher, the teacher tries first of all to give him a firm faith in himself, and a feeling that weakness and cowardice and failure have no part in his true nature.” This is how Krishna began his teaching in the Bhagavad Gita, and how Jesus awakens his disciples here. Lack of confidence must be overcome, if we are to grow spiritually. So Jesus’ insistence, “you are the salt of the earth,” is meant to awaken a sense of our power “to unfold the divinity latent within us.” This is not, Prabhavananda insists, a matter of personal ego, but of discovering God within: “A person who has surrendered everything to God has no ego in the ordinary sense. He cannot be vain or proud. He has strong faith in the true Self within him, which is one with God.”
Turning to “the light of the world,” Prabhavananda shifts emphasis, wishing now to speak about how teachers teach their students. It is “by actual transmission of spirituality” that the good teacher “actually illumines the hearts of his disciples and makes them the light of the world.” We become light, by contact with the Light dwelling in every heart. (Swami might have quoted Psalm 36 here: “For with You is the fountain of life; in Your light we see light.” Only people who are thus illumined, who have seen God (as Ramakrishna put it), can teach the word of God.
To explain this point, Prabhavananda distinguished, in accord with traditional Vedanta theology, between the lower and higher knowledge. The lower knowledge is what we know, including science, philosophy, and even the content of scripture — even the content of the Sermon perhaps. But the higher knowledge “is the immediate perception of God. A man who is enlightened by this higher knowledge does not need encyclopedic information in order to expound the scriptures; he teaches from inner experience,” from the light shining forth.
Consequently, the enlightened teacher effortlessly attracts disciples, who are seeking instinctively for the light; his presence “naturally” turns their thoughts to God, even if the teacher is talking about something else. This is the sequence intended, Prabhavananda says, in this Gospel’s closing words: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
Once again, my goal in introducing you to Swami Prabhavananda’s teaching is not that we need agree entirely with the Swami, nor decide whether his interpretation mirrors Matthew’s intent, etc. Of course there are innumerable ways of reading this Gospel passage in the Christian tradition, and we need not turn to a Swami to find what we might find in any Biblical commentary. Rather, what Prabhavananda adds, with his Indian and Hindu sensitivity, is a focus on the dynamics of teaching: Jesus as teacher, enabling his listeners to hear, learn, and become teachers. On the surface, it makes little sense merely to tell us that we are the salt of the earth and light of the world; even good theology, reminding us of our identity as God’s children, does not make this salt and light potent realities. We can read the Sermon over and over and not change much at all.
Prabhavananda’s contribution here is therefore that he expands our attention from what Jesus says to the fact that he is the one saying these words. In order to hear, the people have come and sat in his presence; even as he speaks, they taste the salt, they radiate the light.
How good it would be for this to happen to us in church this Sunday!