Many of you know that I love salty foods. You are all fantastic bakers and candy makers and dessert creators, but I confess: I’ll pass up the sweet stiff for chips and French fries in a heartbeat. I’m a little self-conscious about putting salt on my food when Lee is around, because I know he’s mystified by people like me, but not self-conscious enough to stop doing it. So, Jesus’ words about the salt of the earth always intrigue me because, with this one image, he encapsulates what a life of discipleship looks like.
He began his description of that life with the words we reflected on last week: the Beatitudes—the first words in what we’ve come to call “The Sermon on the Mount.” Peter and Andrew, and Zebedee’s sons James and John had left behind their boats and nets to follow Jesus as he traveled throughout Galilee. He had been teaching in the synagogues, preaching the good news of how God’s kingdom had come near, and curing all kinds of sickness and disease.
His fame had spread west into Syria, so that those people were bringing him their sick—people with various diseases and pains, mental and spiritual illness, epileptics, paralytics—and he cured them all. The Syrians and Galileans were joined by followers from the Decapolis in the east and Judea in the south. Now he wasn’t being followed by just his four former fishermen but by people from all over the region.
Seeing these crowds, Jesus had gone up a mountain where the acoustics would have carried his words to his listeners. But, the mountain was important to Matthew in another way, too. Remember that one of Matthew’s aims in telling the story of Jesus is to affirm to his community of Christian Jews that Jesus is the promised Messiah—the prophet like Moses. Moses went up a mountain, too, to meet personally with God and to bring back God’s law to the people. “Listen to these words,” Matthew is saying. “They carry the same weight as those earlier words delivered on a mountain.”
So, Jesus goes up the mountain with the named disciples in tow, and he sits down, as was customary for teachers of the time. Although the disciples may have occupied the prime seats, Jesus was speaking to everyone who had gathered there. He begins with the blessings of the Beatitudes, and then he speaks the words we’re focusing on today: “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 underfoot.”
Those words would have called up a world of images and associations for both Jesus’ original listeners and Matthew’s community. Those meanings and associations are just as meaningful for us today. In fact, many of them are connected to sayings and phrases we use on a daily basis.
If we want to get rid of someone who’s bugging us, we may tell them to “go pound salt.” If their speech is a little, shall we say, “colorful,” we might call their language “salty.” Someone who works hard is “worth their salt.” If you spill salt, you might throw a pinch over your left shoulder to ward off bad luck. After vacation, it’s “back to the salt mines” and when we manage to save a little of what we earn there, we “salt it away.” When we doubt the truth of something, we “take it with a grain of salt.” When someone is having a bad time, we sometimes make things worse by “rubbing salt into their wounds.” And, of course, Jesus’ words themselves have become a popular saying. “Oh, they’re the salt of the earth!” we say, about someone who is unpretentious and “real.”
Salt has had an important place in people’s lives throughout history. So, when Jesus uses salt as a way to describe what a disciple is, he’s saying a lot.
As I thought about this image, I started wondering about different kinds of salt, like Epsom salts, and bath salts, and road salt. I learned that all salts are made up of positive ions and negative ions that combine in such a way that the resulting product is electrically neutral. There are many kinds of salts, with a wide range of properties and uses, but as long as they share that particular make-up of ions, they are all salt. I can’t begin to explain the chemistry of this, but it does tell us something about being a disciple of Jesus.
When Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth,” he wasn’t speaking to each of his listeners as individuals. He was speaking to them as a group. That “you” is plural, as it almost always is when Jesus is speaking. We don’t do our discipleship alone; we do it as part of a community of believers. That community is made up of different kinds of people. We all have strengths that the community needs. We all have weaknesses that the community can make up for. The Church—Christ’s body in the world—is formed when we come together to follow Jesus in community. We can’t be truly effective disciples without each other, any more than salt can be salt without a combination of different kinds of ions.
Table salt is pretty cheap to buy these days, but in ancient times it was a valuable commodity—so valuable that it may have been part of a Roman soldier’s pay. In fact, the word “salary” comes from the Latin word for salt. When I think of the crowd listening to Jesus, I wonder what they thought when he compared them to something so precious. We know that Jesus’ followers were by and large the poor, the disenfranchised, the disrespected. To hear that, as followers of Jesus, they were prized and valued must have been life-changing for them.
It’s life-changing for us, too. This world can make us feel so insignificant. How often do you say or hear someone else say, “I’m just a number”? But we are significant to Jesus. We are valuable and cherished. There is never a day when Jesus doesn’t look at us and see something—someone—precious—as precious to him as their allotments of salt were to the Roman soldiers. Every time he looks at us, he sees someone who is “worth their salt.”
Salt has long been seen as a healing agent. We know now that salt is necessary to keep our bodies healthy. It balances the fluid in our bodies. I’d bet that most of us have had an IV of saline solution at one time or another to correct or prevent dehydration. Maybe you’ve gargled with salt water when you had a sore throat, or sprayed saline solution in your dry, stuffy nose.
But, there are Egyptian papyrus documents from as early as 1600 BCE that recommend literally pouring salt into a wound, in the belief that the salt would dry out and disinfect it. Salt was used by the Greeks, the Romans, and the Arabs for skin diseases, respiratory ailments, earache, dog bites, sore throats, and sciatica; to stop bleeding, to aid digestion, as an eye ointment, and even to speed up childbirth. Ezekiel writes of newborns being rubbed with salt at birth. Much later, our own John Wesley included salt in his book of home remedies for the poor, so that they could get some relief from a cough, deafness, receding gums, itchy skin, thorns and splinters.
So, as the crowds heard Jesus call them the salt of the earth, might they have thought that he was telling them that they, too, could be a kind of healing for the world? Just as salt was used to treat so many of the world’s pains, perhaps they could heal, too. They had witnessed, or perhaps experienced themselves, healing of all kinds under the kind hands of Jesus. Could they, too offer healing to others? They could offer a soothing word as a balm for a restless spirit. They could pour a message of hope into ears that were aching to hear it. They could offer a hand or a shoulder to someone who was in pain. They could be healing salt for the world.
We can be that, too. We have exactly the same kind of healing power the first followers had. No, that’s not right. We have more healing power. Because we know that the healing power of Jesus goes beyond soothing the hurts of this world. We know even death can’t have the final say over us. We can be healing salt as we offer the good news of Jesus Christ to the world.
In the ancient world, salt was a symbol of relationship and loyalty. Eating together was called “sharing salt.” At the table, over food literally seasoned with salt, conversation was also “seasoned with salt,” as Paul would recommend to the Colossians—not the “salty” language of sea-toughened sailors, but language seasoned with humor and grace. Like Jesus’ first listeners, we know that that kind of salty language strengthens the bonds we form with each other.
Beyond being a symbol of human relationship, salt was a sign of the covenant relationship between God and God’s people. The Lord told Moses to include salt in the incense that was placed in the tent of meeting. Salt was spread over the burnt sacrifices. Every offering was to include salt. The covenant between God and the priests of the Israelites was called a “covenant of salt.”
Perhaps, like those crowds listening to Jesus, we can hear in Jesus’ words a challenge to be a symbol of life lived in faithful relationship with Jesus. We can be the salt that Jesus shares with the world he came to save. Through our relationships, we share salt with others—we share our own lives and what Jesus has done for us, and we help them see that what Jesus did for us, he did for them, too.
The life of a disciple is not always easy, as the Beatitudes teach. We work and we work to share our faith and make this corner of the world an outpost of God’s kingdom, but we feel like we make little headway. We may feel like those slaves and prisoners trudging off to their grueling labor in the dark and dangerous salt mines. We may be rejected—told to “go pound salt,” like the least-respected workers in those mines. There will be those who question the authenticity of our faith and take our witness with a grain of salt, as the Romans took a grain of salt as an antidote to poison. We may even feel that we aren’t making progress or are even losing ground in our own faith journey. But, if we remain faithful, if we keep doing the work Jesus commissioned us to do, if we continue to be the salt of the earth, we will salt away riches—riches in the world to come, and riches that will sustain us in the world here and now.
Jesus warns about losing our saltiness. Actually, salt doesn’t lose its salty flavor. But it can be contaminated with impurities that change its flavor. It can be used for purposes that are destructive rather than constructive. It can be spilled, which in ancient times was a sign of a broken relationship or disloyalty or lack of trust, things that couldn’t be fixed by tossing a pinch of salt over the left shoulder where Satan was thought to be lurking. We can see the most poignant example of this in Leonardo DaVinci’s painting of “The Last Supper.” If you look closely, you can see that Judas has knocked over a small salt cellar, with the grains spread across the table.
Jesus’ audience knew that salt could also become useless in another way. There wasn’t much wood for cooking fires in ancient Palestine, so they often used dried animal dung for fuel instead. To make the fire burn better, they spread the floors of their ovens with salt, which acted as a catalyst. Eventually though, the salt would its ability to build the flames and would retard the flames instead. When that happened, the salt was good only for throwing out onto the footpaths where people walked.
Our discipleship is vulnerable to the same threats. Our faith can be contaminated by ideas that draw us away from God and neighbor. We can wield our faith like a weapon that can hurt and even destroy others, like salt thrown down a well or strewn on a field. We can lose the passion we once had for Christ, and our lukewarm faith can dampen the faith of others. We “spill salt” in dozens of ways: we damage relationships through neglect, through disloyalty, or through the betrayal of the trust someone places in us. We need to guard against the ways we can lose our saltiness lest we lose our usefulness in God’s kingdom.
How do we preserve our saltiness? How do we keep the salt content of our discipleship high? We stay close to Jesus. We listen to his words about how to live as his disciples. We aim for righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees, not in following merely the letter of the law but in following Jesus’ law of love—for God and for our neighbors. We embrace our role as salt for the earth—salt for all of humanity, salt for all those Jesus loves and came to save.
“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus said to the followers on that mountainside in Galilee. “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says to us today. We are the salt of the earth: many joined together to be Christ’s body, his community, his Church. We are the salt of the earth, precious and valuable. We are the salt of the earth, agents of healing and of relationship. We are the salt of the earth, striving to maintain our saltiness even when discipleship is difficult. We are the salt of the earth that can build the flames of faith in the world. Doctors may warn us about the dangers of too much salt in our diet, but the salt content of our discipleship is a different story. As followers of Jesus, we can never be too salty. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young