I knew the day would come, I had been warned. The doctor sat across from me and said, “Peter you need to reduce your salt intake—in fact you need to avoid salt completely.” I knew it would come-and I dreaded the thought.
You see, I grew up in a home where food was made savory with just two spices: salt and pepper. Actually we didn’t use the word spice -we may have on occasion called them condiments—and if we added mustard we had a cruet set. But I never heard the word spice used by my mother. Salt and white pepper was all my mother used, and she used them liberally—mother didn’t just shake them on meat dishes, mother pounded them on! I suspect that because of my mother’s conditioning —I used to add salt and pepper to food even before tasting it. Why? I just knew the food was not tasty enough for me.
That leads to my sermon question for today: are we salty enough to be effective Christians?
Let me set that question up a little. I am of the considered opinion that Jesus’ teachings and sayings were radical —that is to say he challenged the status quo—challenged the accepted norms of his day.
He challenged the dietary laws and the laws of the Sabbath. He ate with sinners and told powerful stories about foreigners whom the Jews considered the enemy.
He so angered the political and religious leaders of his day that that they conspired to put him to death in the hope of silencing his annoying group of disciples. But it didn’t work. It didn’t work because the radical nature of the gospel was engaging people. It was offering new hope based of love not on crushing rules and regulations.
I believe that generally speaking, “we”, by that I mean the Christian church of western cultures, has domesticated—even sanitized the gospel’s radical message—so that it fits who we are or who we have become. Such domestication is not new or even unique. Even a cursory look at the history of the church shows that the church has either tried to mold the culture or the culture has molded the church.
For example, the evangelistic efforts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in China, Africa and the Far East carried with it the desire to impose western values upon “uncivilized” people. This was particularly true as European nations colonized those continents.
But let’s stay with the modern church. One of the most radical stories in scripture —as best as I can tell—is the story of the so-called Good Samaritan. Jews disliked and even hated Samaritans. Yet in the story told by Jesus it was a Samaritan who cared for “the man set upon by thieves and robbers and left for dead.” A priest and then a Levite not only failed to offer assistance—but passed by on the other side of the road.
It was a Samaritan—a foreigner, someone despised by the Jews who rendered assistance. When he saw the man he had compassion on him, bound up his wounds, poured oil and wine; set him on his own beast, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he paid for the man’s stay, and promised to return and settle any additional expenses.
You can’t have much more of a radical story than that. It was probably a jaw dropping affront to Jewish values.
What has modern contemporary society done with this radical story? We have Good Samaritan hospitals, medical and counseling centers. And, at least in Michigan, we have Good Samaritan laws protecting people who offer assistance to accident victims from lawsuits. Because of such usage, the term “Good Samaritan” has lost its radicalness; it has become domesticated—I suppose in much the same way we have domesticated animals which were once wild and made them pets.
The radical stories told by Jesus are now so well known, so common place that they no longer have any real shock value for us. Because we are so familiar with them, they no longer shock us in the hearing—they don’t even surprise us.
Surely, the most radical event in scripture is the resurrection of Christ on Easter morning. Are we shocked by the radical event? Not really. We attend church wanting to sing the great Easter hymns — and to feel good because we are Christians and we forget how scary and unsettling that first Easter was for the disciples.
Radical stories from scripture which may have lost their “saltiness”!
Several years ago, Homiletics, a journal for preachers mentioned
a book by Mark Kurlansky called “Salt: A World History.” (1) Homilectics offered a page or so in summary. The article said, Kurlansky tracked the history of salt as a mineral, at times more valuable than gold. From the ancient Chinese, who may have gathered salt as early as 6000 BC to biblical times and beyond, salt has been a staple for every human culture.
In the time of Jesus salt was so valuable that it was even used like cash currency. Roman soldiers who marched all over the empire were often paid in salt, and the Latin word for salt (sal) became the basis for the word “salary,” and eventually morphed into the word soldier.
The article said it was also the origin of expressions like “He’s worth his salt” or “earning his salt.” The ancients knew that salt was an essential element in maintaining health. It was also used as a food preservative and as a seal for wooden shipping containers. It was an extremely valuable commodity. Today, believe it or not, the salt industry argues that the mineral has about 14,000 uses! With such a diverse mix of uses, it follows that many ancient cultures endowed salt with spiritual values as well. The Greek author Homer called salt a “divine substance,” and Plato described salt as especially near to the gods.
The Israelites took it a step further and used salt in their ritual practices. The preserving power of salt was well known; thus the ancient Israelites covered their sacrifices with salt as a sign of the eternal nature and preservation of the covenant between God and God’s people: a covenant of salt (Leviticus 2:13)
Now on the flip side of the salt shaker, so to speak, salt could also be used as a sign of judgement and destruction. In Judges 9:45 Abimelech destroyed the city of Shechem and “scattered salt over it” and “sowed it with salt.”
No wonder, then, that Jesus wraps up this section of teaching on the cost of discipleship by using salt as a metaphor for the kind of valuable effort required of anyone who would follow him. Jesus turned to the crowds, the vast number of people clamoring after him. And lays down a lesson in hard currency, “Following me,” he says in effect, “is more valuable than your family.” To the first century Jew there was nothing more valuable than family. (v.26) These often misunderstood words are not an invitation to despise your family—no matter how justified that may be. What Jesus is doing—I believe is using hyperbole—a gross exaggeration to make a point –that in entering the kingdom of God—the cost of discipleship must be calculated. Jesus urges the crowds to seriously count the cost of following him.
Consider it to be like someone building a tower or a house, for example. If the builder doesn’t count the cost, he’ll either not be able to finish the project, or he’ll finish it so poorly that it will need a “makeover” crew to come in and do it right! All to the embarrassment of the builder. Or as Jesus continues, what sort of leader is it who invades a country without knowing what he’s up against?
At this point, Jesus attempts to put it all in perspective with this curious slant on salt: “Salt is good.“ he says, in Luke’s version. It’s a common mineral that makes everything taste better, last longer. In Matthew’s version, Jesus calls his disciples the “salt of the earth,” common, but extremely valuable!
The twist comes with the next qualifier: “But if the salt has lost its taste, how can it be restored?” How can that be? We know that the salt on our table seems to keep its flavor no matter what, so how is it possible for covenant-sealed “salty” disciples to lose their flavor and usefulness?
In fact, Jesus implies that unsalted disciples are of no use—not fit for the soil. Not even for the manure pile where some types of salt were used to preserve animal droppings for field fertilizer—talk about not being worth your salt!
Apparently modern day commercially produced salt does not lose its saltiness. But in the ancient world salt contained a lot of impurities which could cause salt to lose its saltiness—thus rendering it useless. In other words, salt that simply was left lying around unused and exposed to the weather, would eventually lose its taste, leaving it useless for nothing. Jesus drives the point home: disciples are only valuable, worth their salt, if they are used!
Now being “used” often carries a negative connotation we don’t like the idea of being used—being taken advantage of. But in fact, that’s one of the bigger issues in being a disciple of Jesus Christ —being useful, being used for the betterment of others. Jesus died on the cross because people used him for their own purposes: political, religious or personal. Yet because he was used, everything tastes different—the bitterness of sin and death turned into the salty/sweet flavor of eternal life!
Of course we know that too much salt can lead to hypertension—probably the reason the doctor told me to cut salt out of my diet. On the other hand, perhaps the church needs a little more salt—something to elevate its blood pressure a little. Perhaps Jesus is suggesting that salty Christians are the ones who get steamed up about things like injustice, unrighteousness, oppression and wrong doing.
Obedience and commitment to Christ enables and empowers us to be more fully human than we would be without that commitment. It is a recognition that when we pray, “Lord, use me,” it may happen. God created us, equipped us, molded us, energized us, and purposed us to be agents of the kingdom of God—to be instruments of change in this world.
We are the salt of the earth—common but valuable, simple but with some of the complexity of the 14,000 uses of salt. When Jesus calls us to follow him, reaching for us in our homes, workplaces, in our churches, or simply someplace, will we be found salty enough to be disciples of Jesus Christ?
Something to ponder this week.
Pastor Wm Peter Bartlett
Notes (1) Homiletics, September/October 2004 issue
Salt: A World History, Mark Kurlansky. Walker & Co. Portland. OR