By Debie Thomas
When I was seven years old, my mother decided that I was old enough to help her in the kitchen. My first tasks as her assistant included grating coconuts, chopping onions, and peeling what felt like an infinite number of garlic cloves. But there was one culinary lesson Mom stressed over all others. Before she’d let me preside over an actual pot of curry, I had to learn — or, rather, my mouth had to learn — “how to check for salt.”
Under Mom’s tutelage, I learned that it was possible to get every ingredient in a curry just right — to combine perfect amounts of cumin, turmeric, paprika, ginger, garam masala, and cayenne — and still ruin the dish with salt. Too little salt, and the curry would remain bland and lifeless, all of its potential zest and kick subdued. Too much salt, and the curry would lose its depth and complexity to a sharp, unbearable bitterness.
In our Gospel reading for this week, Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth; but if the 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.”
Living as most of us do in cultures of plenty, we take household goods like salt for granted. But as Mark Kurlansky writes in his book, Salt: A World History, “from the beginning of civilization until about one hundred years ago, salt was one of the most sought after commodities in human history.” The ancients believed that salt would ward off evil spirits. Religious covenants were often sealed with salt. Salt was used for medicinal purposes, to disinfect wounds, check bleeding, stimulate thirst, and treat skin diseases. Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in salt — hence our English word, “salary.” Brides and grooms rubbed salt on their bodies to enhance fertility. The Romans salted their vegetables, as we do our modern day “salads.” Around ten thousand years ago, dogs were first domesticated using salt; people would leave salt outside their homes to entice the animals. And of course, in all the centuries before refrigeration, salt was essential for food preservation.
Nowadays, we still use salt for all sorts of purposes. Salt accentuates flavors, melts ice, softens water, and hastens a boil. It soothes sore throats, rinses sinuses, eases swelling, and cleanses wounds. In some contexts, salt has more than a flavor; it has an edge. It stings, burns, abrades, and irritates. If we don’t have enough salt in our bodies, we die. But if we have too much? We also die.
I know that it’s possible to take a metaphor too far. No single descriptor from Scripture — salt, light, bride, clay, sheep, branch, dove, soil — will capture or contain the entirety of what it means to live as followers of Christ. But when Jesus calls his listeners “the salt of the earth,” he is saying something profound, something we’ll miss in our 21st century context unless we press in and pay attention.
First of all, he is telling us who we are. We are salt. We are not “supposed to be” salt, or “encouraged to become” salt, or promised that “if we become” salt, God will love us more. The language Jesus uses is 100% descriptive; it’s a statement of our identity. We are the salt of the earth. We are that which will enhance or embitter, soothe or irritate, melt or sting, preserve or ruin. For better or for worse, we are the salt of the earth, and what we do with our saltiness matters. It matters a lot. Whether we want to or not, whether we notice or not, whether we’re intentional about it or not, we spiritually impact the world we live in.
Secondly, we are precious. Again, it’s easy to miss the import of this in our modern world where salt is cheap and plentiful, but imagine what Jesus’s first followers would have heard when he called them salt. Remember who they were. Remember what sorts of people Jesus addressed in his famous Sermon on the Mount. The poor, the mournful, the meek, the persecuted. The hungry, the sick, the crippled, the frightened. The outcast, the misfit, the disreputable, the demon-possessed. “You,” he told them all. “You are the salt of the earth.” You who are not cleaned up and shiny and well-fed and fashionable, you who’ve been rejected, wounded, unloved, and forgotten — you are essential. You are worthwhile. You are treasured. And I am commissioning you. For all of us who’ve spent months or years trying to earn divine favor, believing that our piety might someday make us precious in God’s eyes, I hope this metaphor will stop us in our tracks. Jesus knowingly named a commodity that was priceless in his time and place. He conferred great value on those who did not consider themselves valuable. He is still doing this. For us. Now.
Thirdly, salt does its best work when it’s poured out. When it’s scattered. When it dissolves into what is around it. I would have done my mother’s curry recipes no favors if I’d kept our salt shaker locked in a kitchen cabinet. Salt isn’t meant to cluster. It’s meant to give of itself. It’s meant to share its unique flavor in order to bring out the best in all that surrounds it. Which means that if we want to enliven, enhance, deepen, and preserve the world we live in, we must not hide within the walls of our churches. We must not cluster and congregate simply for our own comfort. We must not retreat into our pious, theological bubbles out of fear, cynicism, shame, or self-righteousness. Salt doesn’t exist to preserve itself; it exists to preserve what is not itself. Another metaphor for this? A metaphor Jesus used all the time? Dying. Jesus calls us to die to self. To die in order to live. Remember — we are salt. It’s not a question of striving to become what we are not. It’s a question of living into the precious fullness of what we already are.
Lastly, salt is meant to enhance, not dominate. Christian saltiness heals; it doesn’t wound. It purifies; it doesn’t dessicate. It softens; it doesn’t destroy. Even when Christian saltiness has an edge, even when, for example, it incites thirst, it only draws the thirsty towards the Living Water of God. It doesn’t leave the already thirsty parched, dehydrated, and embittered.
One of the great tragedies — and most consequential sins — of historic Christianity has been its failure to understand this distinction. Salt fails when it dominates. Instead of eliciting goodness, it destroys the rich potential all around it. Salt poured out without discretion leaves a burnt, bitter sensation in its wake. It ruins what it tries to enhance. It repels.
This, unfortunately, is the reputation Christianity has all-too-often these days. We are known as the salt that exacerbates wounds, irritates souls, and ruins goodness. We are considered arrogant, domineering, obnoxious, and uninterested in enhancing anything but ourselves. We are known for hoarding our power — not for giving it away. We are known for shaming, not blessing. We are known for using our words to burn, not heal.
This is not what Jesus ever intended when he called us the salt of the earth. Our preciousness was never meant to make us proud and self-righteous; it was meant to humble and awe us.
So what do we do? Our vocation in these times and places is not to lose our saltiness. That’s the temptation — to retreat. To hide. To choose blandness instead of boldness. To keep our love for Jesus a hushed and embarrassed secret.
But that kind of salt, Jesus told his listeners, is useless. It is untrue to its very essence. And so we are called to live wisely, creatively, and in balance. To learn — as my mother put it when I was a little girl — “how to check for salt.” Salt at its best sustains and enriches life. It pours itself out with discretion so that God’s kingdom might be known on the earth — a kingdom of spice and zest, a kingdom of health and wholeness, a kingdom of varied depth, flavor, and complexity.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes concrete the work of love, compassion, healing, and justice. It’s not enough to simply believe. It’s not enough to bask in our blessedness while all around us God’s creation burns. To be blessed, to be salt, to be followers of Jesus, is to take seriously what our identity signifies.
We are the salt of the earth. That is what we are, for better or for worse. May it be for better. May your pouring out — and mine — be for the life of the world.
Debie Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org
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