Salting Lives with Love, Despite Anyone’s Sin.
A sermon based on Matthew 5:13-20
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on February 9, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
My plan this morning is to focus on Jesus’ declaration that we just heard from today’s Lectionary reading “You are the salt of the earth. . .”. Nowadays we tend to hear being called “a salt of the earth” person as a nice thing. It suggests to us modern folks a reliable, good sort of person. And nowadays salt itself has a sort a blandness attached to it, so being the salt of the earth isn’t necessarily a big deal, it’s okay and nice.
I think that may be one reason popular hymns have us singing Jesus’ saying from today’s reading that “you are the light of the world,” but rarely “you are the salt of the earth, ” You may have noticed that songs like “I am the Salt of the word”and “This Little Salt of Mine” aren’t usual Sunday fare– though today we’ll be singing a salty hymn.
In order to appreciate what Jesus is getting at by calling us salt we need to – puns intended– SPICE up our understanding of his message. If you will, SALT needs to be PEPPERED up a bit. So I’m gonna take Jesus’ idea of SALT, SHAKE ‘ER out a bit with so many spice puns during this introduction that some may feel . . . well . . . A-SALTED. Or maybe in-SALTED because I’m SPICING the morning with so many puns that some might get the CHIVES. Some may even be thinking “It’s reckless, that pastor doesn’t CARAWAY he should about too many puns.” And that might be SAGE advice, but I can’t GINGERly raise the topic. It’s not that I’m a careless NUT, MEG-a THYME went into this introduction . . . at least SESAME.
That’s the puns for bit, but I must warn you, the rest of the sermon still has SALTY language . . . (Oops. Sorry.)
Okay. Salt. Sodium Chloride. A necessary spice of life. For you scientists and teachers and smarty pants, I know salt is not a technically a spice, but, we gotta think of it that way, and more, today. We cannot think of it as bland or ordinary to understand what Jesus means. We have to think of it as a molecule of utmost importance, a commodity that’s both ubiquitous and valuable, common and needed, ordinary, yet extraordinary.
Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth. We don’t get a choice. And yes it is okay and a good thing to be a salt of the earth kinda person as we know that term to indicate. I mean who wouldn’t like to be a salt of the earth kinda person, you know a reliable good sort. But, see that may be what the term has come to mean, it’s not what Jesus likely just meant it to mean.
Now don’t get me wrong Jesus’ use of the word “salt” in the text likely included good and reliable, but his meaning included so much more back in his day. And we need to hear it that way too. See back in the first century SALT wasn’t just a spice-like-thing you put on your food. Indeed until, maybe, two hundred years or so ago salt was a much more valuable staple item of everyday human life.
And I don’t just mean we had to have it in our system to live, which we do (every cell in our body contains salt), but salt had a multitude of important purposes and meanings, many of which were indispensable in Jesus’ culture. Salt was used not only to flavor food, but was an essential preservative to keep precious food from spoiling. We have refrigerators now, but salt was how people preserved food for thousands of years. It’s how food was kept from being corrupted by bad things, germs and decay.
Salt also had medicinal purposes as a disinfectant and salve, even today we still gargle with warm salt water to sooth a sore throat and saline is common in hospital IVs. Salt has also been used for centuries for sprains and earaches and things like poison ivy. 1
Believe it or not in Jesus’ day salt was also used as a form of currency. Roman soldiers were paid in weights of salt. The money was called “salarium,” simply because the Latin word for salt is “salarium.” Our modern word “salary” comes from this. Salt as salary is also the origin of the phrase “not worth his salt,” meaning not worth his pay. 2
Romans also put salt on lettuce and greens and so “salarium” is also the root of the word we still use to describe a mix of greens . . .“salad.” 3
Salt was so important that wars were fought over it. And sometimes war was fought with it, as salt is a powerful destroyer of plants and so the enemy’s fields were salted and laid to waste so they could do evil no more to their enemy. 4
Flavoring. Preservative. Medicine. Wages. War. Salt was so important in the day-to-day life and economy of the ancient world that towns were developed around it’s discovery, mining and processing. 5 Salt was an incredibly important economic commodity, so much so, it was referred to as “white gold.” 6
In addition to the practical and material uses I’ve already mentioned, salt also had mystical and symbolic uses in the ancient world. HarperCollins’ Bible Dictionary (p 959) notes that salt in Bible times had
preservative powers that made it an absolute necessity of life and a virtual synonym for essential life-giving forces and, not surprisingly, endowed it with religious purposes.
In the ancient world salt’s power came to bear in sealing a bargain and as a sign of friendship. 7. The Bible reflects this custom in Numbers (18:19) where God tells Aaron:
All the holy offerings that the Israelites present to the LORD I have given to you, together with your sons and daughters, as a perpetual due; it is a covenant of salt forever . . .
In Exodus (30:35) we can find salt as a part of what goes into a formula for religious incense. We find it used in religious sacrifices too, Levicitus (2:13) states
You shall not omit from your grain offerings the salt of the covenant with your God; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.
In Ezekiel (16:4) we learn newborns are rubbed with salt. “The significance of rubbing a newborn with salt is to indicate that the child would be raised to have integrity, to always be truthful.” 8
I’ve gone on and on about salt this morning because Jesus’ said “You are the salt of the earth.” And we need to hear salt as more than an everyday food enhancing sprinkle, we need to hear it as something extraordinary. It’s common and valuable, spicy and useful. It preserves, flavors, and salves what ails, and salt heals.Salt can sting and irritate, but mostly it spreads out and permeates in every human life not only spreading in food or water, but actually soaking our body by it’s presence in every cell. 9In our bodies science has determined salt is essential in our nerve synapses and digestion. Salt is one heck of a useful ingredient in life.
In a booklet put out by a salt company in the 1920s, the list of uses include keeping the colors bright on boiled vegetables; making ice cream freeze; whipping cream rapidly; getting more heat out of boiled water; removing rust; sealing cracks; removing spots on clothes; putting out grease fires; killing poison ivy; and treating sprains, sore throats, and earaches. The salt industry goes still further, claiming 14,000 different uses for this [now] under-appreciated substance! 10
This week I read in both the local paper and the New York Times how valuable salt on the roads has been in this freezing weather, and concern about a shortage. So yes, salt has a been and is good reliable stuff, but, oh so much more !
Jesus’ statement “You are the salt of the earth” is a declaration about us being of great worth and value, and in the text he means “you” as “us,” as church. “You” is not singular, but plural in the text. It’s not a compliment to us as a single being, it’s a statement as to Jesus’ Followers function as a corporate whole. 11.
We, the followers of Jesus, the Church is whom Jesus is talking about serving as the salt of the earth. Again, this is not an optional purpose. “You are the salt of the earth” is a declaration by Jesus, not a request. As a corporate body, if we follow Jesus, we are necessarily required to be the salt of the earth. We’ve got to understand this!
The “salt” Jesus references is valuable, permeating, enhancing, and essential workhorse of the mineral world. That’s what we are to be like. We’re not gold, a mostly pretty ornamental mineral, we are instead. salt an essential-useful-to-Christ mineral.
We need to be healing, we need to be affecting all human cells, we even need to salt the earth so that evil cannot grow, so that we lay waste to that which is un-Godly, not violently either, but by our mere salty presence that keeps at bay the weeds of violence and oppression. We need to be preservatives of Jesus’ loving way by fighting against corruption by the germs of apathy and inaction, greed and ignorance, arrogance and hate.
We need to add flavor to lives dulled by seasons of despair and poverty, of brutality and abuse.
Church must be like salt, the essential element of life, we must provide the saline solution of love to the aching ill body of humanity.
And we need to be irritants too, irritating for justice and righteousness, for care and compassion in our community until there really truly is as our secular nation dreams “liberty and justice for all,” so that the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are not pipe dreams for the poor and down trodden, but living realities in their lives, and everyone else’s lives. We need to dissipate all about the world with a salting of love in the river of life so it spreads and reaches all, so that the molecules of Christ’s salt permeate the world and every human being.
How do we do this preserving, this healing, this flavoring? How do we become salty and useful in the Way that makes us the valuable extraordinary salt of the earth that Jesus meant us to be?
Jesus simplified the Way for us. He taught the greatest commandments are love God and love neighbor. He taught us to do to others as we want done to us. This means, as Jesus also made clear in his teachings, that even our enemies must be loved.
As I was working on putting this sermon together I got a Divine gift from Laura, a poem by Edwin Markham. Here’s the poem “Outwitted.”
He drew a circle that shut me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win,
We drew a circle that took him in. . .
I’m going to read that again . . .
He drew a circle that shut me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win,
We drew a circle that took him in.
When I first read that, I thought this poem sums up the whole meaning of Jesus’ declaration that “you are the salt of the earth.” Jesus’ Way is about God as love; and our loving love; and our being love. And the love we must be is so powerful and extraordinary that – like salt in Jesus’ day– it flavors and heals and enhances everyone’s lives – even our enemies’– so that when they shut us out as “heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.” Then love and we must have the wit to win, salting lives with love despite anyone’s sin.
We, we are the salt of the earth. We have no choice as church.
That is the truth.
And it is good news.
1. History of Salt by Saltworks at http://www.saltworks.us/salt_info/si_HistoryOfSalt.asp
2. Ibid.; Goldberg, Ron, You Are the Salt of the Earth, http://www.jewishjesus.org/Article21.html
3. History of Salt
4. I was reminded of this by “Salt in the Bible,” a Wikipedia article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salt_in_the_Bible
5. History of Salt
7. Mesulam, Shelia, “Salt: Everything you wanted to know about this ancient, essential mineral” http://www.naplesnews.com/news/2008/jan/30/salt-everything-you-wanted-know-about-ancient-esse/.
8. “Salt in the Bible”
11. Hare, Douglas, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary, on Matthew, p. 44
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED