Sunday, February 9, 2014

five things about salt and you

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.' Matthew 5.13

It is sometimes jokingly remarked that the Bible is full of cliches … the joke being that the so-called 'cliches' originated in Scripture, then became so widely used that many often forget where they came from and are surprised when they come across them in their original context. We have just such a 'cliche' in our Gospel today; we will often describe someone as being a 'salt of the earth' type, usually meaning that they are down to earth and not too 'full of themselves.' But that is not, I think, what Jesus meant when he told his followers that they were the salt of the earth. To understand what he was trying to convey, we need to know a little bit more about the place of salt in the Ancient world in general and in Israel in particular. So here are five pieces of information for you, some of which will be familiar, and others perhaps less so.

The first is that salt at the time of Christ was an important preservative. It is still used for that today. I well remember the wooden barrel of salt pork that stood in the corner of my grandparents kitchen. But in Jesus' day, salt's ability to stop food from rotting had a far greater importance than it does today. There were no fridge's or freezers back then.

Next, also connected with food, was its use as a condiment. Again, that’s fairly obvious, we still use it to flavour food today. I don't know about you, but for me a bag of chips just wouldn't be the same without a good lashing of salt along with the vinegar.

Thirdly, it was a valuable item in and of itself. For example, it wasn't uncommon for soldiers to receive part of their pay in salt. In fact, the word salary has its roots in the Latin word for salt, salus. It's where the term 'being worth your salt', another salt-connected cliche, comes from.

Less well known, probably, is that there was a sacred dimension to the understanding of salt in Jewish society, because salt had to be added to every sacrifice offered at the temple. The reason for this, other than being a requirement of the law is unclear; but the fact remains that in order for an offering to be considered worthy of being offered to the Lord it first had to be well salted.

And finally, salt was seen as having immense power to change or destroy. I'm sure you've heard of 'sowing the earth with salt' – a practice which literally meant ploughing salt into the land of a conquered enemy in order to sterilise the land and make it infertile and hence uninhabitable. Quite an extreme thing to do, not to mention expensive considering the value of salt. But it is something that the Jews of Jesus time would have been familiar with as it is mentioned in Scripture: once in Deuteronomy when Moses warns the people that this is how God will treat their land if they don't behave themselves, during which warning he also references the destruction of Sodom and Gommorah; and it is what Abimalech does to the city of Shechem in Judges.

From these five different pieces of information about salt we deepen our understanding of the meaning the metaphor would have conveyed to Jesus'  disciples when he told them they were the salt of the earth. Going through each: just as salt adds to the flavour of food, so the Gospel message adds the savour of truth to men's lives - as St Jerome puts it we are called to season the lives of those who hear us.  And as St Hilary tells us,  even as salt acts to preserve food from decay, so the teaching of Christ's Church preserves the lives of mortal men for eternity. Salt was a precious commodity: so too is the Gospel message with which we salt the earth. Salt was a holy thing – do I really need to say more? God's people are called to be holy before all the earth, 'salting' the earth by both word and example. And finally salt has the power to destroy or change – Christ's followers are called to drive out the evils of the world, the flesh, and the devil thus rendering the earth a place where they can no longer take root.

So by our 'saltiness' those who follow Christ are called to 'salt the earth: by bringing it the savour of truth, preserving otherwise perishable lives for immortality, sharing the good news, leading by example, and changing the world.

And if we lose that 'saltiness' we become worthless. Salt, as I'm sure you know is an extremely stable chemical compound. It does not lose it's flavour. But Christ was not giving a chemistry lesson; he was making a comparison – he was using salt as a metaphor and comparing its attributes to those he expected of its followers. So while salt cannot lose it's saltiness, we can. We can cease to be the salt of the earth if we fail to salt the earth with the life-changing and life saving treasure of the Gospel both in our words and in our deeds. And just as if salt were to no longer be salty it would be worthless and fit only for being thrown away, that is what Christ says that faithless followers of his are like – something that he judges as no longer being good for anything, but fit only for being thrown out and trampled underfoot. 

And so I end with the prayer that neither you nor I nor any of those we love will be so judged by our Saviour, but will instead remain as the salt of the earth all of our days. Amen.

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