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 paid with salt. The Latin word for “salt money” was salarium, from which our English word “salary” comes. Salt 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 also had a social and religious significance. In Hebrew, Greek, Arabic and Persian texts there is a connection of salt and the idea of a covenant or binding relationship. 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.
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.
This week I looked for examples of people acting like the salt of the earth, and it was a good week for salty saints, ordinary people doing good things for others. This has been a great week for the refusal to let bigotry win. In Victoria, TX, the Islamic Center was burned to the ground. Striking at the religious centers of marginalized people is a major strategy of white supremacy groups in this country. On Tuesday, 17 Jewish centers, from pre-schools to synagogues, were closed due to bomb threats. Meanwhile, the current regime eliminated all references to Jews from its Holocaust Remembrance Day statement.
Here is the good news. People are not going to accept that as the new normal. The Rabbi in Victoria, Texas showed up with a spare key to the synagogue and told the Islamic Center they had plenty of room for prayer. Someone started a GoFundMe campaign to rebuild, and the goal of $850,000 was surpassed in two days. 20,000 contributed to make sure this act of hate cannot stand.
Here is another great story from Texas last Tuesday. Every year the Texas legislature has a Muslim Day, where people of Islamic faith come and learn about the legislative process and the freedom of religion. Last year, alt-Christians demonstrated against Islam, condemned the gathering in the name of Jesus, turning his name into a curse, and changed in the face of Muslim children, “Mohammed is dead, Jesus is alive.” This year they did not get the chance because 2000 people showed up to protect the gathering, and formed a human chain four rows deep around the protestors, and drowned their shouts with singing.
Jesus could have used any 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 way on your plate. The waters of the ocean have an overpowering saltiness, yet contain only about three percent salt. Just 3 percent can be overwhelming. You may wonder, “What can just 3 percent of people do against all the evil and injustice of the world.” Here is what they can do. Recent research on nonviolent action campaigns in the 20th century; an international study of labor movements, the civil rights movement, anti-apartheid protestors, Yugoslavia at the Fall of the Iron Curtain; asked the question, how much of the population must be engaged to be successful in their aims. You want to guess the number? 3.5 percent. Just over 3 percent of the people persistently standing as a sign for justice and truth can over power even a dictatorship. Why? Because their moral witness is like salt, and it permeates the whole stew of society, takes out the bitterness and brings in the flavors of all good things, even those who are afraid to stand out.
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 out of the salt shaker and into the world.