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The Salt of the Earth

February 6, 2017

“The Salt of the Earth” Matthew 5:13-20 © 2.5.17 Ordinary 5A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

If you or I run out of salt, we can go to the supermarket and buy more. We can get plain old iodized salt with the iconic girl with the umbrella. Or maybe we prefer sea salt in a grinder or kosher salt. Or how about garlic salt or popcorn salt? In any case, it’s easy to come by.

Not so in the ancient world. Your salt had to come from Phoenician traders or else you collected it yourself, whether from the Dead Sea or from sea water that had evaporated and left a residue in the hole you had dug on the beach. That is, unless you were a Roman soldier, in which case part of your wages would be in salt. Hence the phrase “anyone worth his salt” and our word “salary,” which originally meant “money to buy salt.”

You wanted to have salt, no matter how much trouble it was to get. A sage of the time said: “The basic necessities of human life are water and fire and iron and salt and wheat flour and milk and honey, the blood of the grape and oil and clothing” (Sirach 39:26). Salt was on that wise man’s list of must-haves for several reasons. Of course it was good to season food. It was so common in that regard that the ancient idiom for having table fellowship, to become friends, with someone was “we shared salt.” Salt was a symbol for living in harmony and showing loyalty.

But salt also acted as a preservative in days before refrigeration and antibiotics. It warded off corruption and rottenness, keeping meat from spoiling. Salt thus came to be associated not just with eating together, but with something lasting, even eternal. God’s covenant with a priestly line or with a royal dynasty was known for that reason as “a covenant of salt” (Numbers 18:19; 2 Chronicles 13:5). All offerings had to include salt (Leviticus 2:13; cf. Ezekiel 43:24).

In addition, salt was used for medicinal purposes, much as today we have saline solutions. It cleansed and purified. There’s a story in the Hebrew scriptures, for example, of Elisha the prophet making a toxic spring wholesome by throwing salt into it (2 Kings 2:19-22). Newborn babies were rubbed with salt, so a symbolic meaning was attached to the substance. Anything or anyone that had a healing or cleansing effect was termed “salt.” By the way, to this day in traditional Roman Catholic baptisms blessed salt is placed in the mouth of an infant as a sign of wisdom.

It’s hard to know if Jesus had only one or two or all of these functions of salt in mind when he said you and I are the salt of the earth. Maybe our Lord means that we’re as vital to the life of the world as salt was to everyday existence in his day. By standing for the right, we battle corruption and rottenness. By caring deeply for someone who is confused or struggling, by seeking common ground with all people of good will, we show the value of fellowship and compassion, in a day when everyone is concerned only or mostly with his or her own interests.

To be the salt of the earth means that we are distinctive, we stand out, we make a difference. Ask yourself: would anyone in Amory and surrounding towns notice if this congregation were not here? Or how about if there were no churches in our county of any sort? Or how about in this state and nation if there were no one who sought to follow Jesus, doing unto others as we would have them do to us, loving God first and our neighbor as ourselves? Would it matter? Would something vital be missing? Would an essential element necessary for human survival, indeed, for flourishing, be gone? The answers to such questions tell how important believers are, how you and I and every disciple have been salt, living out our identity.

And being salt is definitely our fundamental identity. Jesus didn’t say we’re the salt of the earth as a command or a goal to strive for. He meant it as a statement of our core value and values, an image of who we are. So a church that doesn’t make some kind of helpful, healing difference isn’t really a church. A believer whose life doesn’t affect others in some positive way isn’t truly a believer. The action doesn’t have to be big. We all know that just a pinch of salt is plenty quite often, and too much can ruin a dish. But tasteless salt is a contradiction. If it’s bland and neutral with no helpful properties, it might be pretty to look at, but that’s about it.

Some years ago, a commentator put the issue this way: “When Christians and the Christian church have lost the gospel of love, and unreservedly pronounced their blessing on carnage and violence, on things utterly opposed to Jesus’ teaching and life, they have lost their saltiness. When the church has denied the law of greatness through service, intent on drawing to itself power and advantage and prestige, instead of going out in ministry, it is fit to be trodden underfoot…. When the ‘fellowship of kindred minds,’ this very body of Christ, becomes a mere appendage to a class or a social order or an economic theory, and does not stand on its feet confronting the world with the gospel of its Lord, it is of no earthly and no heavenly use… When [individuals] show no sign of the cross in their life [they have lost their saltiness]; when they grow so unbearably ‘sweet’ in disposition and judgment that they see no monstrous wrong or seeing it do not feel impelled to struggle against it; when nothing indicates, when they enter into a situation, that a truly new factor, a Christian standard of judgment or a Christian spirit of behavior, has become part of the reckoning, [the saltiness is gone] (The Interpreter’s Bible—Matthew/Mark: 794).

The question of Jesus keeps haunting us, challenging us, making us sit up and take notice: “If salt has lost its flavor, how can it be made salty again?” Our presence in the world is essential and good, like salt was for the ancients. We are here to heal and cleanse and laugh and love and stand for the right. We’re here to show what true loyalty and friendship are like, to model a fellowship where peace is a reality and even the smallest and least significant are afforded a place. We are the difference-makers, you and I. We matter. May it always be so.

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