Grace Presbyterian Church
February 5, 2017, Epiphany 5A
Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20
Time to Be Salty
So Jesus continues with his first great teaching episode, as recorded by Matthew, having first laid out those blessings and consequences we now call the Beatitudes. If one were analyzing this sermon (which, remember, continues through chapter 7), those Beatitudes might constitute a prologue, while today’s passage might be described as a transition from that prologue into the larger body of the sermon, one which anticipates some of the larger themes of the sermon and also anticipates some of the criticisms Jesus will expect to hear in his public ministry.
An example of the latter would be Jesus’s pre-emptory statement that he came “not to abolish but to fulfill” the law (v. 17). While the religious authorities will in time resort to major nitpicking about Jesus or his disciples violating some corollary of some midrash of some story related to some law about table manners in Leviticus, Jesus fulfills the law – not in the manner of a checklist, but in a life in which the law is lived, en-fleshed, for all humanity to see.
Jesus also drops in a couple of metaphors for the effect he calls for his followers to have in the world. One of them is easy; for Jesus to call his followers “the light of the world” both points to a lot of scriptural allusions his disciples would have recognized, and is itself a pretty obvious metaphor. In scripture we can go back to the beginning, the story of creation itself, and God’s command to “let there be light”; we can sing with the psalmist “the Lord is my light and my salvation”, or hear in today’s psalm of how those who “fear the Lord” and “greatly delight in his commandments” will “rise in the darkness as a light for the upright.” And as for the metaphor itself, light illuminates. What is hidden in darkness is revealed in the light. As Jesus also extends the idea, light isn’t meant to be hidden under a bushel basket or behind a wall; it’s meant to shine for all to see.
But that other metaphor…”You are the salt of the earth.” That’s a little bit different. There are not so many obvious references about salt in scripture, and I doubt that Jesus meant for his disciples to recall Lot’s wife being turned to a pillar of salt when she looked back upon the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. There is a reference in Leviticus (2:13) to salt being added to certain sacrifices, and the book of Ezra apparently indicates that receiving a gift of salt from someone indicates that you are in their service, but again, those don’t quite sound like what Jesus has in mind here. Furthermore, the metaphor itself isn’t as obvious, or is perhaps occupied by many possible meanings.
To further keep things interesting, Jesus takes the image in a direction we may not expect. I suspect we don’t often concern ourselves with the possibility of the salt in our kitchen losing its taste, for example, nor are we likely to toss it out to be trampled underfoot. Of course, the salt in your kitchen is probably not very much like the salt with which Jesus’s followers would have been familiar.
In the era in which Jesus is speaking, the primary importance of salt might well have been as a preservative. It was necessary both make foods palatable and to make foods (meats in particular) last. Such was the importance of salt that ease of its transportation was one of the primary driving factors in the roads that became characteristic of the Roman Empire.
On the other hand, salt also has, or at least has been believed to have, destructive properties. Ancient armies sometimes practiced “salting the earth,” purported to be a means of destroying the fertility of the lands of their enemies; perhaps the most famous such case was during the Roman conquest of Carthage, close to two hundred years before Jesus would have been delivering this sermon.
For us moderns, salt is one of those tricky things that is both necessary to our health and harmful to our health if we get too much of it. Maybe some of you might have had your doctor tell you that you need to cut back on salt? Hmm?
Another precarious balancing act might be familiar to those of us who have lived in more northerly climes. Particular kinds of salt are among the easiest tools to attack the problem of an icy driveway or sidewalk, but too much of the stuff runs the risk of getting into the soil and (as noted above) doing damage to your vegetation, be it grass or flowers or whatever might be growing nearby.
Whatever all of these uses and dangers of salt mean, what is clear here is that Jesus means for his disciples to “be salty,” and that losing one’s saltiness risks being disposable – tossed out and trampled. When salt is being used properly and has not “lost its taste,” it does good things to that which it seasons. Food tastes better. Foods last longer.
In short, we really can’t talk about being “salt of the earth” without understanding that doing so means making the world better. There’s no neutrality about it; to be salt in the world is to improve the world. On the other hand, when we see Christians doing harm in the world, accepting or perpetuating injustice and hatred, it’s hard not to think that the salt has gone bad. We know what that means.
On the other hand, maybe that other property of salt might be part of the story too. If our saltiness in the world means that the weeds of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, or hatreds of any kind get snuffed out and can no longer grow, maybe that’s another part of being salty in the world. Who knows?
But none of this works, no matter how we interpret the meaning of this instruction, unless – what did we decide in the children’s sermon, kids? (wait for answer)
None of this works, we’ll never be the salt of the earth, unless we come out of the shaker. As long as we don’t come out of the container, as long as our light is hidden under a bushel, we’re not really living up to Jesus’s instructions. All our righteousness, all our saltiness isn’t making the world better if it never gets outside the walls of this church or any church. Being a follower of Christ happens out there, not just in here. If what we hear and do and say and sing here isn’t preparing us to go out and be salt and light, then let’s close up shop and go home.
We need to be salty, and we need to do it in a way that changes the world for the better. The world needs our saltiness, and needs it badly, and needs it now.
For the saltiness to which Jesus calls us, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#667 When Morning Gilds the Skies
#314 Longing for Light, We Wait in Darkness
#515 I Come With Joy
#746 Send Me, Jesus
Get out of the shaker...