What does it mean to be the "salt of the earth" or the "light of the world"?

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Throughout 2020, I have continued to gather with friends – although now wearing masks and staying socially distant – every Friday morning at Greensboro Urban Ministry (GUM) to prepare and serve a hot breakfast to GUM's clients.

On the first Friday morning in November, I was in a funk. Yet, as I looked around at the volunteers happily setting tables, preparing food, making coffee, and bagging doughnuts and pastries to distribute to those less fortunate than us, my mood brightened and I thought, "The world needs more people like this – the world needs more servant leaders."

Why Now?

What put me in a funk that particular morning? I suspect these events were weighing heavily on my mind:

  • The presidential election was still without a declared winner.
  • The pandemic was accelerating its spread.
  • The economy was losing steam as a result of the pandemic.
  • There were ongoing concerns about systemic racism.
  • A record number of hurricanes and wildfires, along with numerous floods and other extreme weather events, had occurred, all linked to the larger issue of climate change.

Whether it is tearing apart peoples' lives, communities, entire industries, or the environment, or breaking down trust in our democratic processes, these events all seemed to be ripping apart the fabric of our society.

As I looked at my Friday morning friends with fresh eyes, I was proud to see servant leaders who were weaving together the ripped fabric of our local community.

The Servant – Love and Leadership

In his excellent "business fable," The Servant: A Simple Story About the True Essence of Leadership, James C. Hunter illustrates the principles of “servant leadership.” The author pulls together the key qualities of a servant leader, thereby linking "Love" and "Leadership" because of the qualities they share. These are:

  • Patience – Showing self-control
  • Kindness – Giving attention, appreciation, and encouragement
  • Respectfulness – Treating others as important people
  • Selflessness – Meeting the needs of others
  • Forgiveness – Giving up resentment when wronged
  • Honesty – Being free from deception
  • Commitment – Sticking to your choices
  • Service and Sacrifice – Setting aside your own wants and needs, and seeking the greatest good for others

As it is used in this book, "Love" refers to "a love of behavior and choice, not a love of feeling." When Jesus speaks of love, Agape' is the word used in original Greek texts. Agape' is an "unconditional love rooted in behavior towards others without regard to their due."

These are the qualities I saw in my friends at GUM. Even if they had never heard the term, their actions reflected the ideals of servant leadership.

What Is It About Servant Leaders?

Servant leaders see everyone as their Neighbor, because they see the Image of God – the Spark of the Divine – in all people. They do not hesitate to set aside their Power and provide Service to others, out of a sense of Discipleship.

Servant leaders view the world through the eyes of God.

  • Neighbor – The parable of The Good Samaritan teaches that everyone is my neighbor. (Luke 10:25-37)
  • Image – When you see someone who is hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, or in prison – persons Jesus would call "The Least of These" – your heart realizes this person is a child of God and thus inherently worthy of help. (Matthew 25:31-45)
  • Power and Service – True leadership is not about wielding power over others – rather, the goal of true leadership is to identify and meet the needs of others. That's the spirit behind, "Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all." (Mark 9:35b, NIV)
  • Discipleship – Following Jesus is not about reciting creeds. True followers apply his teachings and perform deeds to make the world a better place. "Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching ... Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching." (John 14:23a, 24a, NIV)

Even though I am referencing Jesus' teachings to illustrate these points, similar concepts can be found in other faith traditions.

Living Out Servant Leadership

Servant leadership concepts and a servant leader attitude certainly apply to our volunteer efforts, but what about other areas of our lives? My view is that developing our service and leadership muscles through volunteer work allows us to more naturally apply these skills at home, in the community, and elsewhere. I believe this is especially true in the workplace, where people – frequently called the highly impersonal "resources" – may not be treated with the kindness, respect, and honesty they deserve.

Servant leadership turns a traditional company organization chart upside down, giving customer-facing employees – those we now call "essential workers" or "COVID heroes" – their true due, because they are the glue holding together our way of life. Similarly, servant leadership in elected office upends the typical political power structure, calling our elected leaders to seek practical solutions, not partisan battles, for the citizens they serve.

If these concepts seem to run counter to many aspects of our society, it's because they do. Going even further, The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12, part of the "Sermon on the Mount") envision a radical new world order – one built on love, humility, righteousness, mercy, and peace – that values persons who are weak, mourning, and humble more highly than those who are strong, happy, and proud.

The World Needs More Servant Leaders

Imagine how much better our nation and the world would be if more people adopted the mindset of a servant leader. To beat the pandemic, to turn around the economy, to deal with systemic racism, and to address climate change – to weave together these rips in our society – we need more people who manifest patience, kindness, respectfulness, selflessness, forgiveness, honesty, and commitment.

Jim Wallis, in his provocative book Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus, closes with reflections on two images following The Beatitudes – "You are the salt of the earth" and "You are the light of the world." (Matthew 5:13a, 14a, NIV)

People who are the salt are "a preserving and stabilizing force, to preserve, protect, and deepen the values and behaviors that human cultures most need to keep and enhance." Similarly, those who are the light shine "into the darkness revealing what is wrong, untrue, and a danger to human life and dignity – and needs to be changed."

Salt and light are so common, we hardly even notice them – until they're gone. Without them, food lacks depth of flavor and nighttime dangers go unnoticed. Without people who are the salt and the light, values and behaviors deteriorate, and injustice and lies proliferate.

My friends, the volunteers at GUM, may not think of themselves as servant leaders, or the salt and the light. Even so, they are, and the world needs more servant leaders like them.

Peace, Shalom, Salaam, and Namaste,


Todd L. Herman