I was not paying much attention to my younger brother’s conversation, but then I heard him ask, “Oh, you’re her dad? Why is she always so, so different?” I didn’t really know my brother’s classmate but remember being a bit jarred by the bluntness of his question. We were on Christmas break hanging out at the community center where her father worked. It was an uncomfortable conversation—the kind kids so often have as they try to figure the world out. “She’s not different; she’s Christian,” was her father’s reply. He then launched into a 20-minute harangue about how Christ calls us to be different. His daughter was a sincere Christian girl. This was the reason she dressed the way she did, and why, much to the chagrin of Rudolph’s red nose, she never wanted to join in anybody’s reindeer games.

This all seemed quite suspect to my brother and me. We had been baptized, both of us within hours of our birth. Our dad was the pastor of a local Christian church, and neither one of us had yet to come up with any reason to doubt we were sinners or that Jesus Christ had died for our sins. If this man had bothered to ask us if we were Christians before his harangue, we would have both answered yes. Yet, we still played in any reindeer game we wanted with a free conscience. Everyone we knew in that small town was a Christian, or so we assumed, though they went to different churches.

The father’s explanation was both dubious and insulting. It seemed he meant to suggest to us that we were not Christian because our clothes were not homely, and we liked listening to the Top 40 music countdown while secretly coveting our friend’s Def Leppard t-shirt. (Though, to be fair, our parents did not much like the fact that we could sing along to the radio the few times they would let us listen to the Top 40 station in their presence. My mom was horrified to hear me sing “give me, give me safe sex” in tune and a bit more horrified to know I knew what that meant. It was also quite possible that my brother and I still had room to mature in faith.)

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matt 5:13-14). What does it mean to be the salt of the earth if it is not about clothing and other such externals? What does it mean to be in the world and not of it? What is it that makes Christians different? How do we let our light shine on the hill for the world to see? We could ask the question another way, too. How do we as Christians attain a righteousness that is greater than that of the Pharisees? “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20).

Good works do not give us a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. Rather, good works result from righteousness given by the good work of the Righteous One on the cross.

Here we see the problem of interpreting these verses about salt and light from a legalistic point of view. When it came to the law, and the righteousness of the law, few could hope to outdo those who tithed a tenth of the dill and cumin growing in their windowsill. Jesus was preaching to the “quiet of the land”—the poor masses who showed up at the synagogue on Saturday and just tried to feed their families the rest of the week. They were perhaps a bit like Jesus, whose own “righteousness” was so subdued that the Pharisees could call him a drunkard and a glutton, a charge many would accept based on the fact that Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors. “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nor beauty that we should desire him” (Isa 53:2). Instead, his was a righteousness that did not impress the world.

It is a mistake to think that Christ’s words concerning salt and light are spoken as a challenge to see if you can outdo unbelievers and pagans with works of the law. The law is their game, and they often excel at it. They do not need Jesus and the cross for that anymore than the Pharisees did.

Of course, this does not mean that true righteousness has nothing to do with good works, either. “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Luke 5:16). It’s just that truly good works are never done on the basis of the law or attempts at self-righteousness. They are always the fruit of the Holy Spirit who works love, joy, peace, and righteousness in the hearts of believers. Good works do not give us a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. Rather, good works result from a righteousness given by the good work of the Righteous One on the cross, the Son given to us by our Father in heaven who receives the glory and praise for our good works. He receives the praise because the works are not ours; they are his works done through us. He is our light, the light of the world.

In this world, everyone wants to stand out in one way or another, but often the opposite happens as everyone follows suit. For instance, pink hair and tattoos are no longer as exotic as they were even twenty years ago. The salt loses its saltiness. So it is when Christians try to distinguish themselves by works of the law. Not only do we fail to uphold the law, but we also fail to let our light shine. There is another way, and that is to lose ourselves in Christ, who is our light, lose our lives for his sake. When we lose it in him, we may still look like the world, but he shines. We walk in his forgiveness, and that makes all the difference.