Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20
I was tempted to put a picture of the Morton Salt girl on the bulletin, the girl standing under the umbrella, pouring salt out of a container. It declare, as I’m sure most of you remember, “When it rains, it pours.” I thought of the way I measure salt – over the sink – with little concern for what spills over the measuring spoon. We know salt as an inexpensive resource. Up north, we salt the roads and sidewalks to clear them of ice and snow. Each fall, communities stockpile mountains of salt in order to be ready for the coming winter. And, of course, salt is hidden in almost every prepared, packaged food.
There is a French folktale which Mark Kurlansky cited in his book Salt: A World History. The story says that a princess told her father, “I love you like salt.” He was offended by her statement. So, he banished her from the realm. Later, when he was forced to live without salt, he realized that his daughter’s statement represented deep love. Kurlansky concludes: “Salt is so common, so easy to obtain, and so inexpensive that we have forgotten that from the beginning of civilization until about 100 years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history.”
Kurlansky wrote about an early 20th century psychologist, Ernest Jones, who, like the French king in the folktale, could see no value in salt. Yet, he noted that throughout human history it seemed to be “invested with a significance far exceeding its natural properties – as interesting and important as these are.” He knew that Homer called salt a divine substance. Plato said it was “dear to the gods.” Kurlansky noted that the focus on salt was not limited to Greece. It was given a revered status in almost every known culture.
It has not lost its importance with the passing of centuries. In the 1920s, The Diamond Crystal Salt Company published a booklet, “One Hundred and One Uses for Diamond Crystal Salt.” Salt was needed for making ice cream freeze, getting more heat out of boiling water, removing spots on clothes, putting out grease fires, making candles dripless, killing poison ivy, treating dyspepsia, sprains, sore throats and earaches. The modern salt industry names over 14,000 uses for salt, including salting our highways and streets, and flavoring our foods.
Without salt we would die. In today’s world we often hear that there is too much salt in our diets. But, without any salt, we could not live. Salt, along with water, is necessary for cell function. It was added to the human diet when humans began cultivating crops. Meat eaters had no need since the meat contained salt. But vegetarian diets lack salt, so it needed to be added. Animals that ate only vegetation would forage for salt – and early human seekers of salt followed the animals’ trails.
So the need for salt became a driving economic force. Kurlansky wrote, “Salt became one of the first international commodities of trade; its production was one of the first industries and, inevitably, the first state monopoly…Trade routes that have remained major thoroughfares were established, alliances built, empires secured, and revolutions provoked – all for something that fills the ocean, bubbles up from springs, forms crusts in lake beds, and thickly veins a large part of the earth’s rock fairly close to the surface.” Of course, this reality was not evident until modern geology and technology made salt readily available!
So, we have to step out of our modern perceptions of salt, that it is prevalent and, at times, a problem, in order to understand how it was Jesus understood salt.
Kurlansky wrote that until modern times salt was the primary way that food was preserved. (It might still be the primary way except that we have hidden the salt in our foods.) Salt is a preservative, so it has a “broad metaphorical importance…because we associate it with longevity and permanence.” I learned from Kurlansky’s book that salt is the symbol of God’s covenant with Israel. I didn’t know that – but Jesus would have! The Torah states that God’s covenant with Israel is a “covenant of salt forever, before the Lord.” I learned that on the Sabbath bread is dipped in salt. Again, I didn’t know – but Jesus did. The bread is a symbol of food, a gift from God. Dipping it in the salt preserves it – it keeps the agreement between God and the people.
The Roman Catholic tradition associates salt with longevity and permanence, but also with truth and wisdom. The Roman Catholic Church gives holy water and holy salt – the salt of wisdom.
So, bread and salt are “a blessing and its preservation.” Jewish people brought bread and salt to new homes. The British dispensed with the bread, but brought salt. The Welsh put a plate with bread and salt on coffins.
“You are the salt of the earth.” I hear, through modern ears, not much, only an archaic statement that doesn’t connect much with my world. But with a deeper knowledge of the past, it is possible to hear new things in this statement, as we consider what salt meant to Jesus –and, in spite of its prevalence, what salt means to human existence today.
Jesus would have known that salt was a necessity. “You are the salt of the earth” might be a way of saying that the world has need of our presence, of our faithful living, of our work for the ways of God’s realm to be made visible (to be given light). Jesus also knew the traditions that associated salt with God’s preserving presence. In a world that too often, throughout human history, chooses ways of destruction and death, we are to work for the preservation of life – not just individual lives, not narrow interpretations that give importance to some but not others – but life in families, communities, nations, and the world.
Too often, today, we hear talk about “preserving our little piece of the world.” That piece might be protecting our views (and perhaps enforcing them on others. I read an article that said there is danger, in our country of Sharia law---religious law. However, the danger is not from Muslims but from segments of Christianity that want to enforce their way of life, their understanding of righteousness on the larger society.). We hear talk about protecting our homes, our communities, and our nation from the strangers who are threats.
But, let’s be clear, that’s not God’s vision. God’s vision looks at the world and sees what needs to happen for life to flourish for all people. The prophet Isaiah railed against the faith practices that were self-centered. “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers…Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”
I read a fascinating article by “Christian Week” columnist Erik Parker. He noted the declining mainline churches and suggested that they were in decline because people generally felt OK about the world. He looked back to the 50s when churches were full. “But why were they full?” he asked. “Because people were better Christians back then? Or was it that the world had just come through two world wars and the Great Depression? Was it that society had collectively stood at the brink and glimpsed our collective demise for 5 years straight before the first good news for the allies on D-Day?
Church was a place where hope was found, where grief, anxiety, struggle, pain, and fear could be handed over to something bigger than ourselves. Churches proclaimed that there was something more powerful than huge armies marching over nation after nation, than governments who were sending millions of husbands and sons to war, than the threat of oppression and even extinction.
Churches didn’t have to do anything special other than be communities that proclaimed the Good News as they had been for nearly 2000 years.”
He suggested that we need to become, again, focused on the core things that matter – the core things – the salt that the world needs us to be.
“We will need to be communities of refuge because people will have fewer and fewer safe spaces.
We will need to be communities of resistance in a world that is demanding division, conflict, and violence.
We will need to be communities of hope because we cannot just go back to sleep and pretend the government will have our backs while we spend our time mindlessly consuming stuff and entertainment.
We will need to be proclaimers of the gospel.”
Parker said that we don’t have to be Nickelodeon to entertain. We don’t have to develop slick programs. We need to be salt –engaged in the basic preservation of God’s ways in the midst of a world that knows too much hate, and fear, and division, and violence, and injustice, and prejudice, and war. We are the salt of the earth – those who know that God’s love and concern is from everlasting to everlasting and as particular as the day, as the moment in which we find ourselves. We are salt. We flavor the world with God’s grace and love. We preserve, not our own selfish circles, but all those things the give life to God’s justice and mercy.