We humans have a love-hate relationship with salt. Doctors have told some of us who have high blood pressure to exercise more and eat a healthy diet, and also to reduce our salt intake. Too much salt can be detrimental to our health. But no one can live without salt. Alongside air, earth, water and fire, salt could be labeled as one of the necessary basic elements to life on this planet. Both humans and animals and even some plants need some salt constantly in their diets in order to survive.
Of course there are a range of salts, not just one. The taste of sodium chloride is what we are most familiar with, but there are a series of others that are more bitter or sour, all from the only family of rock that we humans eat. Nowadays salt is so freely available to us that we simply take it for granted, often unaware that through the course of human history it has been responsible for creating the wealth of nations on the one hand, and has led to wars and uprisings on the other.
For the people that we read about in the Old Testament salt symbolised the eternal Covenant between God and his people. When God gives the kingdom to David he does so through a covenant of salt. And even today Jews continue to dip bread in salt to remember that the covenant that God has made with them is preserved. Within our Christian tradition salt has been used both as a sign of blessing, mixed with water and prayer to make the water holy, and given as a gift to people moving into a new home as a sign of blessing on the house; as well as a sign of protection and preservation from evil. For many centuries babies were rubbed daily in salt between the time of their birth and their baptism to keep evil away, and a small amount of salt is still sometimes placed in a baby’s mouth before they are baptised to help them to spit out the devil.
A French folk tale relates the story of a princess who declares to her father, “I love you like salt.” To which he, in his anger from this slight, banishes her from his kingdom. Only later when he is denied salt in his own meals does he realise its value and therefore the depth of his daughter’s love.
Salt is so common, so easy to obtain, and so inexpensive now that we have forgotten that from the beginning of civilisation until about 100 years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in the world.
I have never really spent much time thinking about salt before. Whenever I have come across the great teaching of Jesus that we heard a few moments ago I have always focused on the second image that Jesus uses, of us being the light of the world. There is something altogether warmer, and perhaps more easily visualised when we talk about our calling to be light in places of darkness just as Jesus is the light of the world. But today, I want to say something about the first of the sayings that we heard in our Gospel reading.
From a time when good salt was literally treasure, Jesus says to those who follow him, “you are the salt of the earth – don’t lose your saltiness or you will be thrown away and trampled under foot.” Scientists amongst us will be bursting to tell us that salt cannot actually lose its saltiness, sodium chloride is one of the most stable compounds in the world. It can be diluted in water but after evaporation it will still be salt as it was before. So why didn’t the people who heard and later read this teaching from Jesus rise up and remind him and everyone else of this fact?
The simple reality is that that was not there experience. Salt in the pure form that we know it now was unknown to the people who first heard Jesus’ teaching. They were accustomed to a salt that was mined from the salt cliffs along the Dead Sea, or that came from the evaporated waters of that sea. Unlike our salt, it was never pure, it always had mixed in with it other more sour and bitter salts, and sand and other minerals and even vegetable matter. It was all a bit hit and miss. Some batches were purer than others, some salt was salty others was not. And if it didn’t taste of salt its only use was to be thrown out onto the road for people to walk on to keep their feet out of the mud.
When Jesus says to the crowds, ‘don’t lose your taste, or like salt-less salt you will be thrown out and trampled under foot’, they would have been able to visualise exactly what he was talking about.
But the big question for us, if we want to engage in our own lives with Jesus’ image is, ‘what does it mean for you and me to be salt’ as we seek to follow him and live our lives as his disciples?
One commentator on this passage lists as many as fourteen characteristics of salt that can be applied to followers of Jesus. He mentions for example that salt is refined. So as Christians we must have impurities removed from ourselves. He says that salt melts, so Christians should thaw bitterness and prejudice. He says that salt creates thirst, so there should be something about us that makes other people want to have what we have. We might note that salt preserves, and that salt spreads – all useful analogies for what it means to follow Jesus and to bring others along with us. Some of you will be finishing the list of characteristics of salt that can be applied to the way that we strive to live our lives, in your own minds as I speak.
As I have been reflecting upon the saying of Jesus over the last few days I have been thinking about our experience of salt when we are eating, because I think that doing so may begin to uncover what Jesus is saying to us. Let me tell you what I mean.
Without doubt we value salt when we are eating because it gives flavour and depth. Food without any salt is pretty bland. We might say that living by faith, believing in purpose and meaning, is all about this flavour and depth. The idea of bringing donkeys down the aisle of the Church at Christmas, and blessing school children’s back packs as we will do this afternoon is not because these are essential foundations of the Gospel, but because we are called, as people of faith, to add some flavour to our own lives and to share that flavour as creatively as we can with those who live around us.
Knowing that God loves this world and each one of us provides the greatest flavour to life that we can have. Jesus calls us to be salt – to be signs and experiences of the flavour and depth of that love for ourselves and for others. But we need also to remember that salt changes food but it is never the whole meal. We can’t live well without salt, but we only appreciate its saltiness when we are eating it with something else.
We come – as Anglicans – from a distinctive history of being a church for the nation, a Church that is there when people need us, whether they are committed followers of Jesus or not. We are not primarily concerned about our own congregation, Anglicans gather in parish churches that are here to serve everyone, not just those who attend.
The truth is that just a little bit of salt can penetrate a whole meal, and just as importantly salt is of no value unless it is mixed in with the food that it is going to flavour. Just a little bit of salt can change a whole meal, but it can only change it if its in it. Which means that we don’t need the whole of East Maitland to be in Church to build the kind of world that Jesus calls ‘the Kingdom of God’. But God does choose to need us for this task.
We in turn need to be the kind of distinctive signs that do add flavour and depth – faith and meaning for the people who live around us, for the good of the whole of society.
How on earth are we ever able to be this salt of the earth? Perhaps we need to hear again the echo of the “blessed” beatitudes that we reflected upon together a couple of weeks ago. Blessed are those who cannot be salt in their own strength, but who rely solely on the salty flavour-some love that comes from God.
Jesus says to you and to me today, ‘you are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.’
When you sprinkle salt on your next meal remember that Jesus says to you and to me, “I love you, you are my disciples, you are salt – live for me, add depth and flavour to the lives of those around you.”