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Rethinking salt of the earth

Preservative or catalyst?
Preservative or catalyst?

Matthew 5:13-14
“You are the salt of the earth; but if 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.”

No doubt you’ve heard a sermon based on Matthew 5:13 about how we are called to be the salt and light of the earth. The common interpretation revolves around how salt is used as a preservative and we are therefore meant to preserve the world and prevent it from becoming too corrupted or spoiled. The Message translation poetically tells us to bring out the “God-flavors of this earth.” I was recently listening to a pastor speak about being the salt of the earth and I found myself unsatisfied, and thinking: I don’t want to be a preservative.

I never really appreciated or understood being called salt. It seems like a very subtle job description and doesn’t sound much more exciting than if He had called us to be the sugar, or the potassium sorbate of the earth. Today we generally look at too much salt as a bad thing. Consistently adding salt to your food can cause high blood pressure, and calling someone ‘salty’ isn’t usually considered a compliment. Did this make sense to people hearing it in Jesus’ time? Would they have understood Him to mean we are to add flavoring, or preservation to life?

It turns out Dead Sea salt is only 12-18 percent sodium chloride. Normal sea salt is actually 97 percent sodium chloride, which is the kind of salt found on food tables everywhere. The low sodium chloride content and high mix of other minerals in Dead Sea salt actually makes food taste bitter. Today, salt from the Dead Sea is commonly used for therapeutic properties, but I find it hard to believe Mediterranean women during Jesus’ time spending a lot of time using it for this purpose.

The other problem for me about being labeled a preservative is it feels like we’ve framed the issue around defeat and loss. Talking about ‘preserving’ something implies a losing battle, as if we’re just holding on to the status quo or extending the shelf life of society. Can we make anything better by adding salt or are we just slowing the rate of decay? Do we merely provide flavor or can we actually make a substantial transformation? The common interpretation of Matthew 5 doesn’t inspire me with much motivation. If we’re trying to usher in the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, does that sound like preservation, or revolution?

The second half of the passage speaks of being a shining light on a hill. That I understand. There’s no confusion over this analogy. A light on a hill easily illustrates the importance of a Christian position in society. Our role is to provide guidance and leadership, setting an example for everyone else so that they may give Him glory. Being salt is less defined. How does salt lose saltiness?

Fortunately I stumbled on a different interpretation of Matthew passage that I found more satisfying. This alternate explanation adds new meaning to the phrase “salt of the earth.”

Georgetown University professor, John Pilch, Ph.D., writes in his book the Cultural Dictionary of the Bible that the word for “earth” in Aramaic and Hebrew may also mean “oven.” (See Psalm 12:6 and Job 28:5 for examples.) Many biblical cultures used clay ovens, which were also called earthen ovens. Apparently a common chore for Palestinian girls was to collect dung (thank God your childhood chores only involved unloading the dishwasher and taking out the trash) and mix it with salt to form a patty to be dried out in the sun and then placed in an earthen oven. The dung was used for fuel (1 Kings 14:10) and the salt had a catalytic-like effect to help it burn in the oven (salt from the Dead Sea contains a high mix of magnesium, which is good for burning). Over time, as the mixture was used frequently, the salt would lose its catalytic qualities and therefore be thrown out.

Apparently salt served a different function for Mediterranean cultures than it does for current Western ones. Do you see how this changes our responsibility? This alternate interpretation changes our role to a more significant and action-oriented one – we’re no longer providing flavors and preservation but are responsible for action, progress, movement, and fuel. Christ expects us to have a catalytic effect on our environment, to make a difference wherever we are.

This new attitude also fits right in with this passage from Jesus in Luke 12:

I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!

As a Christian, we are called by Christ to positions in the world in order to start movement and action, acting as a heat-intensifier and not just to bring out the subtle flavors and seasoning in relationships.

So the question now becomes: Are you a catalyst or a preservative?


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