Salt of the Earth

Matthew 5:13-20

Jesus said you are the salt of the earth.  Salt is a life essential that is taken for granted.  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.  This is why the IV bag at the hospital contains saline solution.  Of course, this must be regulated because too much salt will raise blood pressure and degrade your arteries.  Lithium chloride is a form of salt used as a mood stabilizer for bipolar disorder.

We have found multiple 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.  Before refrigeration, salt helped preserve meat, as in salt pork, salt cod, etc.  The need for salt is so great that the world produces 187 million tons each year.  The United States produces more salt than steel.

What does Jesus mean to call us the salt of the earth?  Jesus didn’t know all the ways salt would be used in the modern world, but salt was valuable 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 principal 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, we are the hidden ingredient that brings about something new and good.  As disciples we are to be the catalysts and the bonding agents that bind people together.

Salting our food does more than make it savory.  Salt can take the bitterness out. It is almost magic.  My favorite recipe contains Tuscan white beans and rapini with lemon, anchovy and garlic.  The secret of the recipe is getting the bitterness out of the rapini.  If you boil in in very salty water for two and a half minutes, the bitterness subsides and the rapini blends well with the garlic and lemon. Otherwise it overpowers the rest of the dish.

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 handbasket.  Discipleship is more than stoking the fires of outrage about the evil and immorality of the world.

Here is another property of salt in cooking.  I like to make a white bean and tomatillo chili. It is not a fire alarm chili, but a smoky slow burn with delicate flavors.  I roast poblano peppers, add some smoky paprika, and at the end I put in some lime juice, fresh cilantro and finish it with a little tequila.  The salt isn’t added till the very end because that is when the magic happens.  At first taste you can sense the hot and sour flavor, but after a few shakes of salt, the poblano asserts itself.  After another shake, the hint of cayenne pepper sneaks in, and I don’t know what the tequila does, but there is the wonderful slow burn balanced by the lime and tomatillo.  Salt loses itself in the mix.  It is the ingredient you don’t see floating around in the pot, but it brings out each flavor at the right moment, like a conductor of this culinary symphony. Salt, in the right amount, makes everything else better.  If salt is too much the focal point, it ruins everything, like a big ego plowing through scene ruining it for everyone.

Being the salt of the earth is a way of discipleship.  We are to get into the mix of the world, bind it together, remove the bitterness and discord, and bring out the unique flavor of everyone.  This interpretation fits the context of the Sermon of the Mount, which Jesus has just given the Beatitudes in the previous verses.  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 bring humanity together.  As Harry Emerson Fosdick’s hymn reminds us, the salt of the earth 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 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 saltshaker and into the world.

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