Matthew 5:13-16 (NRSVUE)
I do know that it’s possible to take a metaphor too far. And I know that no single descriptor from Scripture — salt, light, bride, clay, sheep, branch, dove, soil — will capture all of what it means to live as followers of Christ. But when Jesus calls his listeners “the salt of the earth,” when he calls them “the light of the world,” 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. This reminds me of the power of last week’s lectionary reading where we considered the reminder that we are blessed. 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% a statement of our current 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 how important this is 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 any of us who've spent months or years trying to earn God’s favor, believing that somehow we could make ourselves precious in God's eyes, I hope this metaphor will stop us in our tracks. Jesus knowingly named something that was priceless in his time and place. He placed 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. 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 can’t hide within the walls of our churches. We can’t come together simply for our own comfort. Salt doesn’t exist to preserve itself; it exists to preserve what is not itself. 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 doesn’t destroy. According to some commentaries I read about this passage, 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. It ruins what it tries to enhance. It repels.
This, unfortunately, is the reputation Christianity all-too-often has these days. Christians 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? We’re not supposed 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. 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 light, 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. Amen.
(based on “Salty,” by Debie Thomas, 2/2/2020)
Rev. Lisa Drysdale, February 5, 2023