Someone told me this week about a study that explored how the tastes buds of Canadians and Americans differed, and how health experts were taking that into consideration when they explored food labels and other regulations. Americans, apparently, love their sugar. But for Canadians, we can’t get enough salt. Certainly, salt is as central to us in winter as it would have been in Jesus’ day: obviously for different reasons. Anyone who has lived by the ocean, knows the power of salt water to heal a cut, or take the sting out of a bad day. When I was floating in the Dead Sea, lifted by those salt heavy waters, it was one of the most buoyant afternoons of my life.
In this morning gospel we have two popular metaphors for describing the followers of Jesus: salt and light, and both of them help us see our role in relationship to God.
Salt is a favourite metaphor in the gospels. In Mark, we are told, “have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another” – as if the word might be a stand in for “faith.” In Luke, salt shows up as a metaphor for obedient discipleship – and that those with a shortage of “salt” have carried the cross too lightly and without commitment. Jesus, of course, was a master at making the words of sacred text contemporary for regular citizens of his time, rather than serving up lofty talk to the educated masses. He knew the analogy to salt would resonate – though perhaps he didn’t suspect that it would become an idiom so many centuries later.
But what does Jesus mean when he calls his followers the “salt of the earth?” It is in fact very different than the calling us sheep to his shepherd – in that parable, our relationship to God is defined as those who are protected, kept safe from harm, and led out of the valley. The description of salt of the earth is, in many ways much more powerful, and for each of us, more empowering.
First of all, Jesus is declaring a high value upon his followers – as precious and essential as salt. In the time of Jesus, salt was such a costly and valued commodity that sometimes Roman soldiers were paid a portion of measured salt in their wages.
Salt was so valuable because it was essential to life: it preserved food and gave it taste. It cleaned wounds. It was use to keep things pure. But Jesus is not just being declarative with us, Jesus is being aspirational. He aspires for us to be as salt: dependable, decent and unpretentious when it comes to our commitment to the good works of the gospel.
Isn’t that what is meant when we describe someone as the salt of the earth? In these days, of flamboyant celebrities and say-anything politicians, that might be seen as a backhanded compliment for boring. The whole point of social media and reality TV is to be clever, outside the box and bold. Not so much salty, but really, really spicy.
But those are fleeting moments, salt is enduring – it preserves for the long run. We know that in truth, when everything else is washed away, we would want someone by us who is dependable, who does not change or waver with the tide. Who is decent, and strives to be kind. Who is unpretentious, allowing their good works to be seen incidentally as they fulfill them.
A sheep, obedient and dutiful, may be all of those things, however. But by calling us salt, and urging us not to loose our taste – our spice – Jesus was adding free will into the mix, for us to be not only followers but also leaders. Salt is an active ingredient – it changes what it touches.
For what is salt without taste? It’s good for nothing, Jesus concludes, but to trample under one’s feet. It preserves nothing and adds flavour to nothing. And so by naming us this way, Jesus is also challenging us – to see our role as adding individual flavor to the world. The person, in fact, who strives to be decent and kind, cannot help but be at least a little spicy: for there are always times when being decent means speaking up, and being dependable means not backing down.
But that is a challenge: how we can we be salt – dependable, decent and unpretentious – but just spicy enough while also shining our light upon everyone, as Jesus urges us. Being sheep would be so much easier.
In the end, it distills down, so to speak, to one thing: the motive behind our actions. If thinking of ourselves as sheep brings us into God’s embrace, than being called salt sends us out again – to change whatever we touch and whomever we meet. But Jesus word’s in our gospel is caution as well: if we are not paying attention, if we are trying to justify our own choices, if we are studying only to make our parents happy, or stepping in for our own glorification, we will almost sprinkle too much or too little salt on the situation, and either spoil it, or make no difference at all. If our motivation is to be the salt that heals someone else, or thaws a difficult situation, it cannot be about us – who have already been found to be of priceless value.
This is why, Jesus, I suspect, draws in the light metaphor, as he encourages us to be salty. We are warned that as we carry out the gospel – as we try to be good, and decent people – we let all the rest shine on its own. We are not to be a flashlight pointing a single stream of light, trying to get someone’s attention. We are called to be the lamp that naturally casts a sweeping light, indiscriminately.
For in the end, this is the definition of the good life, the gospel-led life: to be the salt that preserves and nourishes and protects, and in doing so, we become nourished, preserved and protected. And to be a light that shines widely, and in doing so, we see God more brightly.