Jesus calls us “the salt of the earth,” a metaphor which his listeners would have understood. It was not unusual for guests sitting at table to be ranked in relationship to the saltcellar. The host and the distinguished guests sat at the head of the table, “above the salt.” People who sat below the salt, farthest from the host, were of less or little consequence. And so the expression “sharing the salt” came to be a way for Christians to refer to table fellowship. (In Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper, the scowling Judas is shown with an overturned saltcellar in front of him.) Not only did salt serve to flavor and preserve food, it made a good antiseptic, which is why the Roman word sal for these salubrious crystals is a first cousin to the Roman goddess of health, Salus. Of all the roads that led to Rome, one of the busiest was the Via Salaria, the salt route, over which Roman soldiers marched and merchants drove oxcarts full of the precious crystals up the Tiber from the salt pans at Ostia. A soldier’s pay – consisting in part of salt – came to be known as his salariumi, from which we derive the English word “salary.” A soldier’s salary was cut if he “was not worth his salt,” a phrase that came into being because the Greeks and Romans often bought slaves with salt.ii
Salt was involved in Israel’s covenants with God. We hear in the Book of Leviticus, “You shall not omit from your grain offerings the salt of the covenant with your God; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.”iii Salt was also used in the purification of sacrifices. The Lord said to Moses “make an incense [offering] blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy.”iv There is this double sense in the Pentateuch of salt being an offering or making an offering: that salt was a gift to God, giving flavor to the “food of God” and that salt was God’s offering to us, a sign of a lasting contract.v There was also a Jewish custom of rubbing salt on the new-born baby, a ritual gesture more similar to exorcism rather than any concern for hygiene.vi (Out of this has come a Christian practice used in some places of adding a few grains of salt to the baptismal water.) Over the years salt has been a commodity for exchange, so valuable in some places that in the sub-Sahara in the centuries following Jesus’ life that merchants routinely traded salt sometimes ounce-for-ounce for gold. Salt: something of almost inestimable worth, but not because it is eaten by itself. No. Salt is sprinkled on other foods in order to bring out the fullness of their flavor. Salt gives wholeness. It has its own taste, yet it loses itself in transforming the food that it seasons. It becomes one with that with which it is united, and both salt and the food are transformed.
When Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth,” he asks what was meant to be a rhetorical question: “If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” For some of us, Jesus’ question may be more literal and rhetorical, because this lenten season we may feel ourselves spent or spilled and we’ve lost track of some of our inestimable essence as salt. How can saltiness be restored? Here’s a counter-cultural suggestion.
There is a biological principle called homeostasis, that we crave what we actually need, that we crave the food that has the vitamins and nutrients that our bodies need. And I think that that biological principle of homeostasis in also true in the spiritual realm. What does your soul crave?
For some of you, your lenten discipline should not just be fasting. You may have been fasting for a long time, and that is a problem, not a help. Lent is a season of solemn preparation for the celebration of the Easter joy. For some of you, the last thing in the world you need to do is to shut down further, to pummel yourself, to fast from life even more. As a way of anticipating Easter; you may need to do almost the opposite. What is it that would bring light to your eyes to counter the darkness? What is it that would bring melody and harmony to your hearing to counter the cacophony of noise and demands that ring in your ears? What is it that would bring a lilt to your gait that would counter the crushing toil others ask you to carry or stomach? What would be like spice, like seasoning, that would bring zeal to your heart to counter the tyranny of urgent demands that are incessant? What are you craving? What would need to be changed for you to know and savor how much God loves you?
To use the image of a salt shaker, what would open up the holes of your soul’s salt shaker that are want to get plugged in your life? What would be the equivalent of the rice in the salt shaker that is there to absorb what would otherwise cause the salt to get stuck and cease to flow?
Those things are worth attending to. Your lenten discipline may actually require much more intentional savoring what God has given your soul to deeply crave, rather than your usual diet of unchosen fasting and near starvation… as a way getting you ready to say “hallelujah” with all your heart on Easter day this year. Jesus said that “you are salt,” something which is of inestimable worth, and if life doesn’t taste that way to you just now, yes, that saltiness can be restored. You are salt, created to give a distinctive flavor to life, you like none other. By your presence, your witness, your gifts you help others “taste and see that the Lord is good,” to use the language from the psalms.1vii What I’m saying here is – to use a pun – don’t just flavor, savor, savor who you are, the salt of the earth.
i The English word, salary, derives from the Latin, salarium argenium.
iily drawn from “History According to Salt,” in Time, March 15, 1982; p. 68.
iiimaking the “foul water” at Jericho wholesome by use of salt (II Kings 2:19-22).
iv Exodus 30:35.
v See Leviticus 21: 6, 8, 17, 22. Insight also taken from “Salt” in the Dictionary of Biblical Theology, by Xavier Leon-Dufour.
vi Ezekiel 16:4.
vii Psalm 34:8.
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