You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
Facebook reminded me a couple of days ago about a short post I had written a few years ago in response to a sermon on this passage. Our pastor listed many varieties of salt…sea salt, kosher salt, various kinds of gourmet salts I’d never heard of, but they are all essentially sodium chloride. That got me thinking about all the flavors of salt I use in cooking, and this unlikely paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 12 came to mind: “Being “salt of the earth” does not consist of one kind but of many. If the garlic salt should say, “Because I am not onion salt, I do not belong in this meal” my casserole would not taste the same. And if table salt could say, “Because I am not kosher salt, I do not belong in this stew”‘ that would not make its flavoring unneeded… Garlic salt should not say to onion salt, “You have no place in my cooking” It’s the cook who should decide how much and what kind of salt to use.” There are different kinds of salt, but it’s all sodium chloride; different kinds of people, but we’re all human. We need to respect and honor our differences as part of God’s recipe for living.
I’ve heard a lot of sermons over the years about the purpose of salt not only as a flavoring agent, but also as a preservative and as a monetary substitute. If you aren’t a churchgoer or a dictionary reader, you probably don’t know that the word “salary” has the Latin root “sal”.– salt. But what about the “savorless salt” Jesus mentions? How can sodium chloride become flavorless, short of a chemical change? One theory I’ve heard proposed is that in the first century, salt was not purified to the extent that it is today. If salt was also expensive, I can imagine there were cases where an unscrupulous merchant might “cut” the salt with something else that had the outward appearance of, but wasn’t actually,salt. In that case, I can see how moisture might dissolve the sodium chloride, leaving behind the insoluble, flavorless filler.
Exactly who was Jesus talking about in his salt metaphor? To understand his meaning, I think we have to go back to the commonly accepted purposes of salt as a flavoring and preservative, and think about what those might represent. I think of Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel, or Handel’s oratorio “Messiah”, or the novels of Tolstoy and Tolkein, or the scientific breakthroughs of Newton and Pascal, or the amazing grace exemplified in the genesis of the antislavery and other social justice movements. It makes me realize how much of a part Christian faith has played in flavoring our world with beauty and truth and meaning. As salt makes everything taste better, or preserves foods that would otherwise become inedible and/or a source of food poisoning, many followers of Jesus have made the world a better place.
Unfortunately, as in Jesus’s time, there also have been a lot of self-professed Christians who have not made the world a better place, or who have said and done things that make it a worse place. I think these people are “savorless salt”, the adulterant mixed in with real sodium chloride. Later on in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” and “Beware of false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them” Saying you are a follower of Jesus doesn’t cut the mustard.with God. Your actions speak with more truth than your words.
It’s pretty clear to me what “the will of my father in heaven” is. Centuries before Jesus, the book of Leviticus recorded God’s instruction to “love your neighbor as yourself.“, and gave concrete examples of what that might look like in that time and place. Later the prophet Micah summed it up as “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Jesus said the same thing when asked which commandment should have priority: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” In the earliest days of the Christian church Paul wrote to the Galatians, “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.“ and to the Romans, “The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The love-of-neighbor principle is reiterated again and again in prose, poetry, and parable. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus makes it pretty clear that “your neighbor” means everybody, not just those who are of your tribe. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus goes so far as to say those who aid the marginalized, the ostracized, and the forgotten are in fact aiding Him.
The board game “Othello” describes itself as taking “a minute to learn, a lifetime to master”. I think Jesus’s injunction to “be salt” is like that. It’s pretty easy to understand but difficult if not impossible to master, at least not to the extremes Jesus exemplified.”Salty Christians” are those who attempt to practice the principle of “loving thy neighbor as thyself”. “Savorless salt” Christians are those who do not attempt to put into practice the teachings of the Christ they profess to follow. How this principle is put into practice may look different in different times and places, but its results (fruits) are obvious. “Salty Christians” add a good flavor and help preserve their surroundings. “Savorless salt Christians” leave a bad taste in the mouth and a rotten, decaying environment in their wake.
Salt or no salt? Which would you prefer?