In a few moments, when our attention shifts to the altar, we will sing, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts. Heaven and earth are full of your glory!”[i] God’s holy, holy, holiness is invisible, transcendent, infinitely beyond our capacity to apprehend. But then there is God’s glory. God’s glory teems through creation, from the tiniest of creatures to the greatness of the mountains, in color and scent, in size and texture, in harmony, in the whistling wind, and in the light of day and stars at night. Traces of God’s glory appear to us in beauty so magnificent. Mechtild of Magdeburg, the 13thcentury German mystic, said “[God’s] glory pours into my soul like sunlight against gold.” The Jesuit priest and poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, said of God’s glory:
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil…”[ii]
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
As you hear these words—this commandment—on the lips of Matthew’s Jesus, how do you feel? What comes up within the chambers of your heart? Are you borne up in inspiration and joy?
Or are you, like me, sometimes rather terrified? Terrified of this commandment; terrified of all the gaps in your character through which the word “perfect” shines an unbearable light; despondent at the thought that one might never achieve such divine perfection.
Or, even more, go beyond the confines of a single self: human history is formed (or, rather deformed) by human ambitions to perfection. No matter how lofty or admirable a goal, the perfectibility of the human being has so frequently ravaged the human experience; whether through the carnage of racial, ideological, and national “purity;” or the mutilation of certain bodies that do not conform to a preconception of human perfection; the project of selectively eliminating certain genes within the human genome in order to prevent various congenital illness and come, at last, to a kind of designer perfection of one’s own children.
As a music student, I was quite alive to this ambition of humankind. I don’t think there was a single day in the four years of undergrad when I was ever told “this is good enough.” And it fractured my relationship with music as a result. I would never be “perfect.”
Jesus calls us “the salt of the earth,” a loaded metaphor which his listeners would have understood. In Jesus’ day, 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, from which comes the Roman 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 up the Tiber 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.[i]
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.”[ii] Newborn babies were rubbed with salt, from which has come the Christian practice of adding a few grains of salt to baptismal water.3 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, merchants routinely traded salt sometimes ounce-for-ounce for gold. Salt: something of almost inestimable worth, but not because it is eaten by itself. Salt is not food. Salt is added to food to bring out the fullness of their flavor. Salt gives wholeness. Salt has its own taste, yet it loses itself in transforming the food that it seasons. It becomes one with that to which it is added, and both salt and the food are transformed.[iii]
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, you feel spent or spilled and you’ve lost track of some of your inestimable essence as salt. How can your saltiness be restored? There is a biological principle called homeostasis, that we crave what we actually need, that we crave the food that has the nutrients that our bodies need. What does your soul crave?
- What would bring light to your eyes to counter the darkness?
- What would bring melody and harmony to your soul to counter the cacophony of noise that ring in your ears?
- What would bring a lilt to your gait that would counter the crushing toil others ask you to carry or stomach?
- What would be like salt, like the perfect seasoning, to bring zeal to your heart to counter the tyranny of urgent demands that are incessant?
- What are you craving?
- To use the image of a salt shaker, what would be the equivalent of the rice in the salt shaker to absorb what would otherwise cause the salt to get stuck and cease to flow?
Those things are worth attending to for you to savor and be grateful for your gift of life. Jesus said that “you are salt,” something which is of inestimable worth. 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,” the language of the Psalms.
[iv]To use a pun, I’m saying don’t just flavor, but savor who you are. You are the salt of the earth.
[i]Insight about salt in the Roman world very liberally drawn from “A Brief History of Salt,” in Time, March 15, 1982; p. 68.
[ii]Leviticus 2:13; Numbers 18:19; II Chronicles 13:5.
[iii]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.