Jesus teaches using stories from everyday life, and he often uses metaphors and similes, sometimes with hyperbolic language which certainly gets one’s attention – like cutting off your own wayward hand. Yikes! We need to hear Jesus earnestly, but not always literally. Jesus has to be interpreted. We need to listen to Jesus on three levels: what did his words mean to his contemporaries 2,000 years ago in the Middle East; what do his words mean to us in our present day and culture; and what do we now learn from God’s Spirit? Jesus said that God’s Spirit, would “lead us into all truth.”[i] We need to pay attention to the guidance of Spirit to interpret the Scriptures and to find our way in life.
So what sense do we make of Jesus’ metaphor about salt? Jesus says, “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”[ii] Jesus says, we are “the salt of the earth.”[iii] So what is salt to Jesus? Where did salt figure into Jesus’ own life?
In Jesus’ day, salt was both precious and symbolic. The expression “sharing the salt” was a phrase describing eating with someone. It was not unusual for guests sitting at a dinner 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, further from the host, were perceived of lesser status. In Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper, we see Judas the betrayer scowling, with an overturned saltcellar in front of him.
Not only did salt serve to flavor and preserve food, it made a good antiseptic, from which comes the Latin word sal for these salubrious crystals. The Roman goddess of health was named 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 salt crystals from the salt pans at Ostia. A soldier’s pay – consisting, in part, of salt – came to be known as his salarium, 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.[iv]
Salt was involved in Israel’s covenants with God, with grain offerings, and in the incense used in purification sacrifices to give “flavor” to the “food of God.”[v] Newborn babies were rubbed with salt, from which has come the Christian practice of adding a few grains of salt to baptismal water. Over the years salt has been a commodity for exchange, so valuable in some places that in the sub-Sahara during the centuries just following Jesus’ life, merchants traded salt, sometimes ounce-for-ounce, salt-for-gold.
In food preparation, salt was and is something of almost inestimable worth, but not because salt is eaten by itself. Salt is not food. Salt is added to food, in Jesus’ day and now, to bring out the fullness of flavor. Salt has its own taste, yet salt loses itself in the food it seasons. It becomes one with that to which it is added, and both the salt and the food are transformed.[vi]
Jesus knew what we know about salt, that – as he says – “salt is good.” It is good for seasoning and good for purifying. And yet we know more, history aside. Times have changed. For one, salt does not have the value it had in Jesus’ own day. Salt is readily available to us from salt mines and from desalination plants. Salt is cheap. Salt is thrown around by the truckload to melt ice on streets, and highways, and walkways.
We also know that salt – sodium chloride – is an electrolyte that carries an electrical charge allowing muscles to extend and contract, and it prompts the synapses in the brain to fire. Our bodies don’t manufacture salt. We have to ingest salt. Without enough salt, we are paralyzed and die; however with too much salt, we die, probably from cardiac arrest.
Of course, where salt shows daily is in our diet. Most every eating table has a salt shaker. If you pay attention to the ingredients in processed foods or fast foods, you find salt in most everything. Too much salt. Ben and Jerry’s will even sell you salted caramel ice cream! There is so much salt in our diet. Meanwhile, most all of us at a certain age will be told by our health care professionals to cut back on our salt intake. Get rid of salt. So salt is good, in measure, otherwise salt is bad. For us, salt is a mixed metaphor, unlike for Jesus. So we need to translate Jesus’ metaphor of salt. We need some salt substitutes.
What did Jesus mean when he said that we are “the salt of the earth”? For starters, we are precious. You are precious, of inestimable worth. You matter. You are beautiful. Live your life radiating the wonder of who you are. Jesus’ knew the worth of salt, and salt was golden. You are as valuable as salt.
Salt that you are, how do you very uniquely bring savor and delight, not just to your own life but also to other people’s diet, what people live on, what they consume? Think about this both literally and symbolically, what people feed on. Symbolically speaking, many people’s daily diet is full of despair, hopelessness, anger, fear, loneliness, and the absence of dignity. They will feed on this unsavory diet unless they are rescued, unless they are given other sustenance, unless their “taste of life” is seasoned differently. Ruminate on this powerful and precious metaphor of salt – as Jesus meant it – and consider how you can be as salt to some others to transform the daily diet of their life experience.
Secondly, salt’s historic identity gives us an invitation to humility. Salt, by itself, is not consumed. Salt is added to food to bring out its delicious essence. I’m thinking of the salt metaphor when we hear in the psalms, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”[vii] How can the salt we bear help bring goodness and delight to others’ taste of life? I’m thinking of Jesus’ salt metaphor when I hear him say we are to lay down our lives for one another.[viii] This is salt as an invitation to our humility.
And finally, salt has an antiseptic quality, true in Jesus’ day and still today. How might this healing quality of salt symbolically inform who you are and what you do in a world where so many people are ravaged by suffering and disease, both physical and emotional?
Jesus was very keen on salt. The salt metaphor can still be a powerful and precious metaphor for us if it is translated. Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.” Salt is of your essence. Pray for the Spirit’s enlightenment how you, in the world today, are to be like salt in Jesus’ day. Most of us will have a daily reminder of Jesus’ salt metaphor: in the salt showing up in your food preparation and at your meals. Pay attention to the daily presence of the salt shaker at your table being an evocative, powerful, precious reminder of what Jesus has called and empowered us to be in this world: like salt which, for Jesus, was magnificent. You are magnificent!
Lectionary Year and Proper: Sunday, Year B – Pentecost XVIII
[i] John 16:13.
[ii] Mark 9:49-50.
[iii] Matthew 5:13.
[iv] Insight about salt in the Roman world very liberally drawn from “A Brief History of Salt,” in Time, March 15, 1982; p. 68.
[v] Leviticus 2:13; Numbers 18:19; II Chronicles 13:5.
[vi] Salt also had a practical and symbolic function of purifying, suggested, for example, in the memory of Elisha’s making the “foul water” at Jericho wholesome by use of salt (II Kings 2:19-22); Exodus 30:35; See Leviticus 21: 6, 8, 17, 22; Ezekiel 16:4. See “Salt” in The Dictionary of Biblical Theology, by Xavier Leon-Dufour.
[vii] Psalm 34:8.
[viii] John 15:13; 1 John 3:16.
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