Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot
Scripture Reading: Matthew 5
Focusing Quote: “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can saltiness be restored?” Matthew 5:13
“Salt of the Earth” is an old expression. No doubt many of you are familiar with it. It was one of the favorite descriptions my grandfather used when talking about his fellow farmers. The subject of his admiration was usually older, was usually active in local affairs, and always had a reputation for honesty. The “salt of the earth” to him was someone who was unpretentious and reliable. Perhaps even more importantly, the honored individual was difficult to move and not given to flights of passion or displays of excitement. This last attribute is probably why he never considered me in that category.
Now, when I say that my grandfather was a farmer, this was technically true. It was how he liked to introduce himself when he met people for the first time. However, he was also an executive at IBM, which was what paid the bills and funded his rather expensive side-project. Interestingly, the term “Salt of the Earth” was never one he used to describe his friends at the company.
“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says to his disciples, followers, and who knows how many passers-by. In order to truly understand what he meant, it is worth taking a moment to consider the ancient world's relationship to the glorified condiment to that stuff that sits in the salt shaker on our table and raises our blood pressure. For even today we know that Jesus must have meant something other than “You make my food taste better”!
Salt, in the ancient world was, of course, one of the finest preservatives. It was used to keep meat fresh for consumption. In this way it saved people from starvation before refrigeration came along. Still, there is more to it than that. It was, during the time of Jesus, a form of medicine that had a much better track record than most other options. It was the “wonder drug” before penicillin, performing miracles of healing on a regular basis. It had religious significance, too. We only have to think of Lot's wife who, the Bible tells us, was turned into a pillar of salt during the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Salt was so important, it was even used as money! Soldiers from the Roman Era all the way up to the war of 1812 were sometimes paid in salt or brine. The Roman word for salt, incidentally was sal. The payment in salt, was a salaruim. Sound familiar? It should. This is where we get our own word, salary.
So salt was a key part of the ancient world. It was what made things livable, healthy and good. So Jesus is telling his followers in this passage how truly important they are. “You are the light of the world....let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to God”.
So, who were these followers, who was he talking to about these things, and what did he require of them? Jesus, as we know, didn't necessarily mean your average corporate executive any more than my grandfather did. Nor was he all that interested in the well educated or the powerful. He didn't mean the comfortable aristocracy who controlled the world. These were the sort of people who harassed Jesus and his followers, chased them into the wilderness and, in later times, executed them as they had done to John the Baptist earlier on.
Perhaps we should get closer with those fabulous metaphors we hear about these days. “Joe the Plumber,” anyone? How about his friend “Joe Six-Pack”, or those “Hockey Moms,” or even the “Working Men and women who make this country great”? Sure, these are all words for people who could—possibly—be considered for “salt of the earth” honors. However, these are stand-ins and symbols. Jesus didn't preach the Sermon on the Mount to a congregation of symbols but to actual human beings inspired by a new message of hope.
Perhaps the answer to what it takes to become “salt of the earth” can be found in that earlier section of the Gospel of Matthew. The beatitudes invite us into a way of being that is very different from what we are used to. They run counter to normal ideas of success and yet, like salt itself, they are the essential attributes for making life good and just.
We are blessed, after all, when we take on the discipline of the beatitudes and try to “grow in the spirit” as the phrase goes. We are blessed when we begin to find that saltiness that Jesus tells us about. Perhaps we, too, should try to be humble and meek, to work for justice and peace. We, too, can try to strip away the cynicism and wash away the many slights and hurts that burden our days in the world to return the essential goodness that lies within us so we may learn to give to others and change the world.
The Buddha, after all, tells us that “To conquer oneself is a greater task than conquering others”. This is a task, I think, that is never finished.
Prayer: We all have the power to be the salt of the earth. We all have the power to be the light in dark times. Help us, God, to find the strength to receive your blessing. Amen
“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the reign of heaven” Matthew 5:3