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]
I was raised as a Baptist in Alabama, and spent my late childhood and early teens falling in love with Jesus and his Gospel. Years later, during my studies at Harvard Divinity School, I would discover a call to follow Jesus as an Episcopalian. The eight years or so in between I found myself on a prolonged hiatus from Church and from Christianity, zealously studying and practicing Buddhist meditation. I think my exposure to these practices was a providential preparation for my later encounter with Christian contemplative prayer, and the compassionate, joyful presence of the Buddhist monks who befriended and taught me may have planted the first seeds of the Christian monastic vocation I am living into today.