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]
(for contextual notes about this passage in the arc of Mark’s Gospel, see the end of this sermon)
Picture this: Jesus and his disciples are traveling on a hot and dusty road from Galilee – the territory in the north where he was raised and where he has been teaching and healing – to Jerusalem, the holy city in the south that is the center of Jewish faith and practice. He has deliberately set out to go there, “setting his face towards Jerusalem,” knowing full well its dangers, and the opposition he is certain to face there.
Along the way, he has revealed to his disciples that he must suffer and be put to death by his enemies, but that God will raise him to life again. These words confuse and frighten them and they repeatedly demonstrate their failure to understand not only the meaning of this prediction, but also who he is and what he has been teaching them. They seem not to have grasped at all the concept of the “kingdom” of which he has been speaking – an “upside-down kingdom” in which the first are last and the last are first, in which to lose one’s life is to gain it, and in which the greatest is the servant of all.
Just now they have been arguing amongst themselves over who will be the greatest in the kingdom which they are sure he will establish once he arrives in Jerusalem and defeats his foes. Jesus corrects them and tells them plainly that in God’s kingdom “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then, we are told, “he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me’” (Mk 9:35-37). For Jesus, children are a sacrament of God’s presence and of his presence and are therefore to be protected and loved.
Although it doesn’t seem possible, this is already the fifth year of our Monastic Internship Program, in which we invite young people to live alongside us to share our rhythm of life: prayer, worship, work, service, life in community. We have the largest group ever this year: a total of eight, four here and four at Emery House. They come from Australia, Colorado, Texas, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, New York, Maryland and right here in Massachusetts. The program is for me a source of great joy and satisfaction. One of the deeply gratifying things about it is the sense that in participating in the spiritual formation of young people we are participating in the future: the future of the Church, the future of the world.
The internship program is also a source of continual amazement: this year’s group is nothing like any other year’s. Each group of interns has brought to our life a unique combination of qualities and gifts, its own particular vitality, its own particular flavor, its own savor, its own particular “salt”. Jesus is talking about salt today: “For everyone will be salted with fire. 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.” [Mark 9: 49-50]
This may be one of the more obscure sayings of Jesus. Sometimes I think he must have taken pleasure in leaving people scratching their heads. Be salted with fire? Have salt in yourselves? “You are the salt of the earth…” [Mat. 5:13] Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another?