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Pour on the Salt

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Matthew 5:13-16

“You are the salt of the earth.  But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again?  It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet.  You are the light of the world.  A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket.  Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise God who is in heaven.

I always say that to determine what a scripture text might mean for us today, we first have to look at what it meant in its original context, to its original audience.  So of course to consider what it meant to Matthew’s audience for Jesus to say, “You are the salt of the earth,” we have to look at what salt meant at the time.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, salt was frequently used in sacrifices and offerings to God.  It was also used in covenant ceremony with God and symbolized a close relationship with Yahweh.  In the New Testament its uses were more practical.  One author says that although salt has a bad reputation for its overuse in our food, in biblical times “salt was overwhelmingly viewed as a positive resource.  Not only does salt add flavor to food, it also preserves certain foods such as meat or fish from spoiling (essential before the invention of refrigeration), helps to purify or cleanse meats through the removal of blood (forbidden to be consumed according to the Torah), and is useful in healing or cleansing certain ailments.  All of these uses were commonly known in first century Palestine. . . . [This author says that] when Jesus said, ‘You are the salt of the earth,’ he and his audience likely had much more in mind than a convenient flavor source.  Salt was, to put it succinctly, a necessary element of life.  And, by extension, salt was a symbolic bond of the necessary relationship between God and Israel.”[1]

This is a wonderful, pleasant, common view of salt and Jesus’ statement, “You are the salt of the earth.”  But then I made the mistake of reading another commentary, which pointed out that yes, salt was used in those ways during that time.  BUT the Bible never mentions them.  Yes, meat could be preserved with salt, but the poor didn’t get much meat, And the biblical stories that refer to “the preparation of meals indicate immediate consumption.”[2]  Well, sure, I argued, but the Bible doesn’t mention everything that happened.  Stories never do.  In the seven years covered in the Harry Potter series, we are only told about Harry bathing twice, yet if these were the only occasions he would have had fewer friends.  There are lots of things in real life the Bible doesn’t mention, so I was not convinced by this argument.  But then I read the alternative.  The word translated as earth can mean the ground, even dirt, but it is also a bit of a synecdoche, a figure of speech in which a part of something is used to define the whole, like calling a car your “wheels” or a business person a “suit.”  The term translated as earth here was also an outdoor earthen oven.  Homes of the time typically had a courtyard in the middle that contained “an earthen oven with a double stove, a millstone for grinding, a dung heap, along with chickens and cattle.  The earthen oven used the dung as fuel.”[3]  Wood is not plentiful in the area, so fires were not created from wood.  Fires were fueled by dung, dried manure.  But to make it burn better, they used plates of salt,       which served as a sort of catalyst for the burning.  The salt plates did not last forever.  After a few years they got burned up, which made them useless.

So when Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth,” many scholars now believe Jesus meant, “You are the salt of the earthen oven” – the oven that burns dung.  Do you wish we could go back to the metaphor of salt as flavor and preservative?  I will spare you the details from my research including what kind of dung was preferable and how much one would need per year because if we can get past the excrement part of the metaphor, “You are the salt of the earthen oven” means “You are what makes the fire burn.”

Interesting, right?  But what does that mean?  This passage is part of the Sermon on the Mount.  What comes immediately before these verses is the Beatitudes: blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, blessed are the merciful and the peacemakers.  Those were not the values of the time.  Remember that Israel was an honor-shame society. One expert describes it like this: “Unlike our Western, guilt-oriented society, in the Mediterranean society of the first century (as in the traditional societies of that region today) the pivotal social value was honor.  Concern for honor permeates every aspect of public life…. Simply stated, honor is public reputation.  It is one’s status or standing in the community together with the public recognition of it.  Public recognition is all-important.  To claim honor that is not publicly recognized is to play the fool.  To grasp more honor than the public will allow is to be a greedy thief.  To hang on to what honor one has is essential to life itself…. Honor determines . . . who can eat with whom, who sits at what place at a meal, who can open a conversation, who has the right to speak, and who is accorded an audience.”[4]  Honor was also considered a limited commodity, meaning that honor gained was almost always honor taken from someone else.  So how do you think they responded to the words “blessed are the meek”    or “blessed are the poor in spirit”?  These blessings from Jesus would cause quite the controversy, and Jesus knew it.  He went on to warn: they will persecute you because of this.  If you live according to the values Jesus teaches, you are going to be salt in the earthen oven.  You’re going to fuel some fires.  That’s what happens when values clash.  That’s what happens when we live in a way that upsets the surrounding culture.

And we do it in so many ways.  The church teaches that it is better to give than to receive.  The world around us says that acquisition is the goal and giving is only for tax benefit.  The church teaches that serving one another is one of our highest callings.  The world around us says that only those at the top of the ladder really count.  The church teaches that we care for one another, lift one another up.  The world says “oh, wouldn’t you rather have power?”  The church teaches that we must care for the widow and the orphan, the vulnerable in society, and world says they should pick themselves up by their own bootstraps.  The church teaches that we must welcome the immigrant, “for you also were aliens in Egypt,” and in the world around us, immigrants are being sent back to the violence they fled and are being killed for their trouble.

When faced with a world that teaches values vastly different from our own, what are we to do?  Suit our message to fit the world?  Cease to preach the prophetic call?  Hold our tongues lest we offend?  Content ourselves with pious practices and religious rituals?  No.  We start some metaphorical fires.

Anybody who has been on a mission trip with me knows my favorite tool.  I love using the chop saw.  We call it a chop saw, but I guess it’s actually a miter saw because it can cut angles.  I’ve wanted one for years, and I stumbled upon a used one for sale on Facebook Marketplace.  It was smaller and not as professional as the ones we use in Cherryfield, but it was a good price and the owner assured me it was in good working order.  He wanted to sell it right away—how soon could I get to Kennebunk?  It was pouring down rain when we met in a parking lot, and I was a little uncomfortable meeting a stranger so I didn’t take the time to inspect it.  I got it home and at first I thought a part was simply missing.  I sent him a message and he assured me it was complete.  Then I sent him a picture of his listing, and a picture of it now, pointing to what was missing.  “Oh it must have gotten lost in transit.  You can buy one for $10.”  I looked closer.  It didn’t fall off.  The lever that allows you to shift it to cut angles is broken.  It does work, but it’s not a miter saw, and it’s not what I was sold.  He assumed that I wouldn’t know enough to question it, or that I would be uncomfortable enough to not linger.  The guy, of course, blocked me on Facebook and I can’t even report him.

He didn’t think to block my spouse, so I could still report him.  Better yet, I know where he works.  He’s a fitness instructor there at the fitness center, where we met.  I had this image of showing up with the saw and demanding my money back.  That’s what the world around me says I should do.  You should stand up for yourself, get what you’re owed, don’t let anybody take advantage of you, and if you could post live video of the interaction on Facebook, even better!  After writing this sermon, I realized I can’t do any of that.  Instead I’m going to write him a letter.  I’m going to tell him that I know what he did, but I’m going to assume he needed the money more than I do, and so I forgive him.  Maybe kindness will start a little fire, a catalyst for some change, more than my anger could ever have done.

What can you do to challenge the culture around us?  Maybe it starts with forgiving a stranger who ripped you off.   Maybe it starts with forgiving a stranger who flipped you off in traffic!  Maybe it starts with not being the stranger who flips people off in traffic!  Maybe you can start a fire against greed by valuing your employees over profits.  Maybe you can start a fire against power, by sharing yours.  Maybe you can start a fire against racism, by calling out your racist uncle.  Maybe you can start a fire against sexism, by confronting your male friends on the way they speak about women.  Maybe you can start a fire against cruelty, by speaking out against cruel policies by other governments and your own.

I am NOT saying that as Christians we are called to accept abusive treatment, or let people take advantage of us against our will.  What I am saying is that as Christians, we are called to be counter-cultural, to be the catalyst that brings about change.  We are the salt of the earthen oven.  We’ve got a lot of dung to burn!

But then we all will be warm.


[1] Allen, Amy. “The Politics of Saltiness.” https://politicaltheology.com/the-politics-of-saltiness-matthew-513-20-amy-allen/

[2] Pilch, John. https://hts.org.za/index.php/HTS/article/view/826/1490

[3] Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels.

[4] Malina and Rohrbaugh

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