Jesus said we are to be the salt of the earth. Salt is one of the essential things for life that is often taken for granted and forgotten. You probably did not think much about salt this week, but consider how often you unknowingly use and need it. Salt is more than a condiment to make our food taste better. Our body needs a certain amount for good health. The chemical compound for salt, sodium chloride, is essential for many chemical reactions which take place in the body. When deprived of it we become dehydrated, our blood pressure will drop and we would eventually slip into a coma and die without salt. Of course this must be regulated because too much salt will raise blood pressure and is unhealthy. We have found other uses for salt, from melting ice on our sidewalks, curing animal hides, it is used in water softening equipment and has many industrial uses for manufacturing chemicals. The need for salt is so great that the world produces 187 million tons each year. The United States produces more salt than steel.
To call someone the salt of the earth, as Jesus did in Matthew’s Gospel, speaks of their importance, yet the clique has lost its savor. Jesus was a master of the metaphor, and I think he chose this image of salt carefully. By comparing a person to the salt of the earth, he meant much more than complimenting a person for their good works. If we probe the uses and meaning of salt in ancient times, I think we will find a metaphor for what a disciple of Jesus should do in the world.
Salt was greatly prized in the ancient world. Roman soldiers were actually paid with salt. The latin word for this “salt money” was salarium, from which our English word salary comes. It was a principle commodity of commerce and made up the bulk of the caravan trade across the Sahara. One of the oldest roads in Italy was called the Via Salaria (Salt Road). Salt was more than an essential commodity and even had a social and religious significance.
Reading this back into Christ’s words, we could surmise two different meaning to being the salt of the earth. Jesus could have been saying that God considers the listeners to be immensely valuable and necessary. Remember that Jesus was preaching to the common people. There wasn’t much of what we would call a middle class in those days, in fact more than 90 percent of the people were basically serfs and laborers with no education and little future. They certainly didn’t see themselves as the salt of the earth, as something or as somebody who had a God-given task in the world. This is truly and empowering metaphor.
Salt was important for more than commerce in Jesus day. In Hebrew, Greek, Arabic and Persian texts there is an intimate connection of salt and the idea of a covenant or binding relationship. Among the ancients, to “eat salt” with another person was to create a bond of friendship. Therefore, the task of a disciple who is to be the salt of the earth is to bind people together, to strengthen the bonds of one person to another, to expand the human covenant and create a broader sense of human solidarity. In Jesus’ day they did not know how salt helps create and sustain chemical reactions, but this knowledge fits the metaphor. The church is to be like salt, which enables people to react together in a way that brings about something new and good. As disciples we are to be the catalysts and the bonding agents that bind people together. We salt our food, it takes the bitterness out. Disciples of Jesus are to be like that. We are to transform the bitter taste that the world leaves in our mouths.
Discord, divisiveness and derision are not to be in the spice rack of the church. Too often the public face of Christianity in our nation is like salt that has lost its savor. We are not called to scold the world into being good. We are not told to look at the evil of the world and then proclaim that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket. There is a movement to stoke the fires of outrage about the evil and immorality of the world. William Bennett champions this in a recent book called “The Death of Outrage.” His analysis of our moral problems is fairly accurate, although he is very selective about what he is outraged about. Sex, lies and violent television are easy targets for outrage, but I wish his outrage were more stirred by sweat shops on the Mexico border that put children to work 12 hours a day rather than giving them an education. We all have our pet outrages and soap boxes, but expressing outrage is not a tool of social change. It doesn’t bring us any nearer to the Kingdom of God. It is blowing off steam. The difference between outrage and the way of Jesus is the difference between salt and sand. To the naked eye a grain of salt looks just like a grain of sand. But if you put each into your dinner, you will soon notice the difference. One increases the savor of the meal and one grinds uncomfortably on your teeth. Sand may get your attention, but in the end it gets spit out.
Being the salt of the earth is a way of compassion and reconciliation. We are to get into the mix of the world, bind it together and remove the bitterness and discord. This interpretation fits the context of the Sermon of the Mount, where Jesus has just given the Beatitudes. He has said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” He also blesses the merciful, the pure in heart, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who mourn (which I would translate “those who are willing to let their hearts be broken by the world), blessed are the meek (or those who are humble, not selfish and self-centered.) Jesus says that these are the virtues for disciples. These are the people who are going to inherit the earth, who will be filled, who will receive mercy, who will be called the children of God. These are unlikely virtues that exhibit and different kind of power than most worldly power. These are the attributes that will bind humanity together, that will cure the nation’s warring madness, bend our pride to God’s control, save of from weak resignation to the evils we deplore, lest we miss thy Kingdom’s goal.
Jesus could have used a number of other metaphors to describe the role of the church in the world. He could have said, you are like a mighty army that will achieve victory, or you are like the tide that shall overcome the earth, an earthquake that will shake the foundations of the status quo. But instead, Jesus said that we are like salt. We are like those little crystals you put in a shaker on your table. It helps the food taste better and it quietly and unnoticeably keeps the body alive. Without it, you die.
You are the salt of the earth. You don’t need massive amounts of salt to accomplish a great deal. A few sprinkles go a long ways on your plate. The waters of the ocean have an overpowering saltiness, yet contain only about three percent salt. Your activities, great and small, help bring about the world God intends, a world where there is hope and dignity, faith and liberty, love and equality. To carry out this activity, we do not have to be numerous, wealthy or powerful, just willing to get in the mix.