Sunday, February 6, 2011

On Being Salty

Isaiah 58:1-12
1 Corinthians 2:1-16
Matthew 5:13-20


Salt, in small quantities, is necessary for all animal life. It regulates the balance of fluid in the body. Without salt in our diets, our cells would become flooded, diluting our electrolytes and slowing our neural transmissions. It all goes down hill from there, and it ends in death. Salt is necessary for life.

Salt is also an excellent method of food preservation, and was the primary way in which meats were kept prior to the invention of refrigerators and freezers. Salt has been produced as a good for over 8000 years. Archaeologists believe salt was being harvested from springs as far back as 6050 BCE.

Production of salt continues today. And in epic proportions. In 2002, world wide salt production tipped the scales at 210 million tons. That's 420 billion pounds of salt--or roughly 70 pounds of salt per person in the world.

Of course, we don't eat all of that salt. 82.5% of all salt produced today is used for purposes other than food: salt is used in pulp and paper production, setting dyes in textiles and fabrics, making soap, detergents, and cosmetics, and, of course, salt is used for melting snow and ice in the winter.

Salt is used in various religions for ritual purification, blessing, and preservation of the covenant in Judaism. It is the most oft mentioned food in the Bible, appearing 40 times in the King James Version.

Culinarily speaking, salt is used as a seasoning. It makes food taste better. It makes food taste more like itself. I remember, as a child, watching my grandfather sprinkle salt on watermelon and cantaloupe because it brought out and intensified the flavor of the fruit.

Salt is also one of the only four "tastes" for which the human tongue has receptors. And while there are many things that taste sweet, sour, or bitter (as experienced by the other three types of taste receptors), only salt tastes salty. Salt also interferes with the receptors in the tongue for bitterness. Find coffee too bitter? Not a fan of grapefruit because of the bitter overtones? Try a sprinkle of salt. It cuts the bitterness and allows other flavors to come to the fore.

And pair salt with something sweet? It's a winning combination every time.

In the gospel reading for today, Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth. Considering everything that salt does, this is significant. And in the save breath, Jesus warns us against salt losing its flavor. When salt is no longer salty, it is "no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot."

It's not enough to look like salt. TO actually be of any value, it has to taste salty--and only salt tastes salty.

Jesus is known for speaking in parables and riddles throughout the gospels. I think this is one of those times when he's using metaphor to make a point. After all, none of us is made entirely of salt. And the only person in the Bible to be turned entirely into salt--Lot's wife--ended up that way because she disobeyed God.

I think what it means to be the salt of the earth and how salt can lose its saltiness is founder later in our gospel reading, and earlier in Isaiah.

Jesus tells us that "unless [our] righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, [we] will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven."

The Pharisees in 1st century Israel were the authorized teachers of the Law. They had succeeded the priests who had become ineffective. The Pharisees saturated every aspect of life--influencing the Sanhedrin (which was kind of like the U.S. Supreme Court), holding power in the synagogues (places of worship), and in the schools.

Though the Pharisees were lay officials, they were experts in the Law who acted as power brokers between the aristocracy and the masses. The Pharisees were focused primarily on ritual purity.

The scribes were an elite class of individuals from many corners of Jewish life. So named because they were among the few who were literate in the 1st century, the scribes were teachers of the Law. They also interpreted the Law in new circumstances, and served as lawyers, theologians, guardians of tradition, and curators of the text.

The scribes and the Pharisees were the keepers of Old Testament traditions. They held to the peoples' fast described in Isaiah--seeking God and claiming to delight in God's ways, while forsaking God's ordinances; they fasted but did not see; they fasted "only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist." They served their own interests and oppressed all their workers.

Being salt of the earth, a salt which is salty, means holding to the heart of the Law, rather than the letter of the Law. It means choosing the fast that God chooses: loosing the bonds of injustice, undoing the thongs of the yoke, letting the oppressed go free, and breaking every yoke.

Being the salt of the earth means sharing your bread with the hungry, bringing the homeless poor into your home, and clothing the naked.

I also believe, though, that being the salt of the earth means choosing to act in ways similar to the rock salt.

We should bring flavor to life! We should make life taste better. We should melt the cold around us, bringing warmth and safety everywhere we go. And we should deter bitterness, making things sweeter wherever we find ourselves.

Paul writes a bit about this in 1 Corinthians--how we are to bring the light of Christ into the word--"not with lofty words or wisdom...but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power."

I think he actually says it better, though, in Colossians:

"Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way that you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversations be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone."

"Let your conversations be always full of grace, seasoned with salt...."

Seasoning our words with grace is one way we can be salt and light to the world everyday.

When we choose to be salt and light--removing the yoke, the pointing finger, the speaking of evil; offering food to the hungry and satisfying the needs of the afflicted, seasoning our conversations with grace--the Lord promises to guide us continually, to satisfy our needs, and make our bones strong. we will be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

Today, may you be salt and light to all your encounter, and may God meet your needs as you meet the needs of others.


Just for fun, as a practical application for being "salt of the earth," during the children's sermon, I had the kids hand out the salt caramels I'd spent the last two days making. SO! MUCH! FUN!

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