Collectively, those things are the very opposite of political clout and partisan power. Jesus is describing people who are willing to be oppressed and disenfranchised for the sake of true righteousness. They are peacemakers, not protestors; poor in spirit, not affluent and distinguished; people who are persecuted, not the pompous and the power mongers.
And yet, notice. These poor and oppressed people are the ones Jesus is addressing when he says in Matthew 5:13 "You are the salt of the earth"—and in verse 14, "You are the light of the world." He begins addressing them directly in verse 11: "Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
To whom is he speaking? The believers in His audience, those who exemplify the traits He blesses in the beatitudes. Those who were persecuted for righteousness' sake. Those who were reviled for His Name's sake. They were for the most part simple, common people—everyday people from among "the multitudes" (v. 1).
Of course, Jesus also claimed to be "the Light of the world" in a very special and unique sense. It was one of His most explicit claims of deity (John 8:12). He is "the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world" (John 1:9)—the source of all true light. He is like the sun, compared to which we are merely candles. But even as candles, we give off light, and even the faintest light of the smallest candle is capable of piercing and dispelling total darkness. The collective light of many candles has a still greater influence. That is how Jesus pictures our role in a sinful, dark, and fallen world.
And what is supposed to happen when we let our light shine before men? They see our good works and glorify God. This is not about wielding political clout. It's not about organizing protests against ungodliness. It's about how we live—the testimony of our lives. It's about exemplifying the same traits Jesus blessed in the beatitudes. That's how we let our light shine, and that's the saltiness we inject into an otherwise decaying and tasteless society.
Christ has made us different from the world, and we should simply be what we are. We're salt in a decaying and tasteless culture, and we're light in a dark world. If we give up (or cover up) what makes us distinctive, we lose our savor and forfeit our only real influence. If we have to squelch the heart of the message Christ has called us to proclaim in order to advance some political or moralistic agenda, we're guilty of hiding our light under a bushel. Those who think the church can have a greater influence by adopting a worldly strategy are actually undermining the only valid influence Christians can have on society.
When we merely imitate the world by jumping on every worldly bandwagon, when we make worldly alliances to advance political causes, or when we adopt worldly strategies to win the world's approval, we forfeit our distinctiveness. The contemporary evangelical movement is guilty of that kind of compromise on multiple levels. We've put sand instead of salt in the salt-shaker, and we have put bushel baskets over our candles.
Here's the remedy: "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven." It speaks to us on an individual, as well as a collective, level. It describes what we must do corporately as a church; it gives a much-needed corporate corrective to the evangelical movement as a whole; but notice: it also reveals what you and I need to be doing as individuals.
Do you want your life to count for eternity? Do you want to maximize the influence of your life on your children, your neighbors, the people at work, people in your community, and ultimately the whole world? Here is Jesus' strategy for spreading the light, one candle at a time. This is what He calls you and me to do: "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven."