You are the salt of the earth. – Matthew 5:13
The ocean is about four percent salt — and so, more or less, are you. Life on this planet began in the oceans, and to this day, each cell of our body encloses a small ocean of its own. We may need fresh water to drink, but we have salt water in our veins. About four percent salt, to be specific.
Four percent is only a small part, a tiny fraction. The ocean’s salt is far outweighed by its waters; easily dissolved, the salt is invisible. But that tiny part flavors the whole. In this respect, salt is more powerful than sugar; an equivalent amount of sugar in water would give it a faintly sweet taste, but 4% salt is enough to give it some bite.
You are the salt, Jesus said. Not the sugar.
Salt nowadays is inexpensive and commonplace, but in the ancient world it was hard to come by and therefore valuable. Soldiers in Ancient Rome were given a ration of salt as part of their wages. This was called the salarium— from which we get the modern word, salary. A hard-working soldier was said to be worth his salt.
But Jesus told his followers, you are the salt.
Salt is not simply a flavor but a seasoning. It enhances other flavors. It strengthens them, heightens them, brings them out of hiding. Salt, added to a chicken, makes it more tender. Salt, added to eggplant, makes it less bitter.
Salt in fact is not only a seasoning, but also a preservative. In the ages before refrigeration and canning, salt was used to store food for long journeys or lean times. Here in New England an entire colonial economy was built upon the export of cod; but without salt, most of that cargo would have been spoiled before it ever came to market. The salt, it turns out, not only helps to dry the fish but also has antimicrobial properties. The presence of salt resists corruption and slows decay.
You are the salt, said Jesus.
Salt is not always a welcome thing; after all, no one enjoys having salt rubbed in their wounds. As an idiom, to rub salt in the wound generally means to make a painful situation more painful. And I can certainly imagine that rubbing salt in a wound would be painful indeed.
But why would anyone apply salt to a wound in the first place? Well it turns out, salt was an ancient medical treatment for trauma. The presence of salt creates an antibacterial environment that resists infection. Salt in the wound can help prevent it from festering, and spreading disease throughout the body.
You are the salt, said Jesus.
Jesus’ followers were just a tiny drop in the ocean — a minority within a minority within a mighty and brutal empire. Yet Jesus told them, you are the salt of the earth — be salty.
Do not lose your distinctive flavor. Keep your edge. Love your enemies, forgive your debtors, do not return evil for evil. Be the salt.
Friends, we too are just a tiny part of the whole. We are wounded people, living in a wounded nation, on a deeply wounded planet. And like all wounded creatures, we are afraid to let anyone touch the site of our pain. And so, we lash out in anger, or withdraw in fear. We try to numb the pain, by turning it into rage or apathy. And meanwhile, the infection spreads.
But you and I are the salt of the earth.
A spoonful full of sugar may make the medicine go down — but we are not the sugar, we are the medicine. We are not called to sugarcoat the truth, or to sweeten the deal. We are not called to dull the world’s pain, but to heal it.
We are not the sugar. We are the salt.
(February 9, 2020, by Rev. Liza B. Knapp for the First Church of Deerfield, MA)
(photo: sea salt crystals, by Liza B. Knapp)
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