Salt. Such a simple word. Such a simple condiment. Salt is essential for life. It’s also an essential nutrient for human health. Common salt that you put on your food is mostly sodium chloride (NaCl). Salt is one of the five basic taste sensations. A mere 6% of the world’s salt is used for food, the majority is used in manufacturing. Salt. We couldn’t live without it.
Salt is important in many religions. In the Old Testament, salt is used to make things holy. You may have heard of holy water, but holy salt came first. In fact many people think holy water came from the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, who invoked their gods with offerings of salt and water.
We find Old Testament biblical references to the properties of salt such as these.
“sprinkle them with salt to produce a pure and holy incense.” Exodus 30:35
“Never forget to add salt to your grain offerings.” Leviticus 2:13
“the priests are to sprinkle salt on them and offer them as a burnt offering to the Lord.” Ezekiel 43:24
In the New Testament we have five mentions of salt. In four we have one of Jesus’ sayings:
“You are the salt of the earth.” (Matthew)
“You must have the qualities of salt among yourselves and live in peace with each other.” (Mark)
“Flavorless salt is good neither for the soil nor for the manure pile. It is thrown away.” (Luke)
Jesus was talking to a large crowd, we are told in our reading today (Luke 14:25). He is explaining to the people who have gathered that it’s hard to follow him. Perhaps they are rather excited and think that following the Messiah is easy. Maybe there is a carnival atmosphere. It isn’t hard to convince ourselves that following a person who does amazing healing miracles and feeds people with a few loaves is easy. How hard can it be to follow a man who is going to set us free from our enemies and who turns water into wine.
Jesus is explaining how hard it is to be a follower of the Messiah. Jesus says in verse 26 that it’s as hard as hating ‘your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life.’ Jesus says in verse 27 that anyone who follows him will have to ‘carry your own cross.’ The Messiah isn’t going to carry it for them. And in verse 33 Jesus says, ‘you cannot become my disciple without giving up everything you own.’
Did you think it was easy to follow the Messiah? We can understand so far. It’s straightforward.
Pause for a moment before you take the leap. Think about what you are doing. Count the cost. After you have decided, then give him your whole life. Hold nothing back.
Why then does Jesus suddenly start talking about table salt? Many people have wondered about this. We often assume he is referring to a preservative. Salt stops things going bad.
This does not fit easily with what he has just said about the cost of following him. Neither does it fit with his expression ‘salt of the earth’.
In the Philippines the government has issued guidance for coconut farmers. The guidance tells farmers to use salt as “An Effective and Cheap Fertilizer for High Coconut Productivity.” Salt accelerates crop growth and development, increases crop yield, minimizes damage to plants, and promotes environmental sustainability.
What if we were to listen to the teaching of Christ like coconut farmers in the Philippines – or the ancient people of Palestine – rather than as modern people who only use salt on their food?
During World War II, when potassium fertilizers were in short supply, British farmers resorted to an old technique. They used sodium chloride (table salt) as a fertilizer, especially for beetroot crops. In talking about his disciples as salt, Jesus was referring to them as fertilizer rather than preservative.
Jesus isn’t calling on his disciples to preserve society the way it is, so that first century Palestine goes on forever unchanged. Jesus is calling on us to be fertiliser so that we speed up the change.
When Jesus spoke about salt in Matthew 5:13, Mark 9:50, and Luke 14:34–35, he was referring to several varieties of salts used at that time. Those salts were mixtures of chlorides of sodium, magnesium, and potassium, with very small amounts of calcium sulfate (gypsum). Some of these would dissolve more quickly than others, while some were better able to withstand the elements. These hardier “saltier” salts were generally more valuable in an agricultural context because their benefits would last longer.
Jesus talked about salt losing its “saltiness” or “flavour”. This is the process in which the compounds of salts naturally disintegrate over time. Disintegrated salt loses a small amount of gypsum, which changes its “saltiness.” This makes it less effective as a fertilizing agent. When Jesus talked to his followers about losing their saltiness, he was talking about losing their fertilizing properties, their ability to bring about life and growth.
As a fertilizer, salt is scattered. In lumps it can, like any fertilizer, destroy the chemical composition of the soil. Jesus was in part addressing his followers as individuals.
He was anticipating the time when they – through mission and persecution – would be diaspora people, scattered across Palestinian society and into all nations.
This was necessary. If they remained huddled in one place, they could not fertilize the soil.
As a fertilizer, salt does not exist for itself. Salt exists for the sake of the shoots of kingdom growth that God has planted. Salt helps goodness grow. Salt enables God’s alternative reality to become tangible in people’s experiences. Salt’s purpose is not to stop a bad world from becoming worse. Salt spreads Godly ways of living that are out of step with society but in tune with Jesus. Salty disciples encourage the kingdom life.
As fertilizer, salt differs from the soil it fertilizes. Distinctiveness – that’s the point. Compromise – that’s the worry. Salt could lose its saltiness (literally ‘become foolish’) and blend in with the rest of the soil.
When we realize we are fertilizer, we measure our value by the growth of others, not by our comfort or vocational success. Moreover, we also recognize that we need to be scattered where the soil most needs fertilizing. We need to be in close relationships with people who do not know or believe the gospel so that new life in Christ might grow where there is now only barren soil.
The justice, power, and nearness of God’s kingdom are breaking in not to preserve ‘Christian’ society but to make men and women, their churches and even aspects of society congruent with Christ. This, no less than the preserving view, requires hard work, duty-doing, and the rest. It also invites us to try new thinking. It urges us to commit ourselves to change. It assumes that God through the Holy Spirit is doing new things. Jesus is the one who defines this newness. Our time is a time for mission.
Some disciples might honour Jesus but choose appearance over reality. They might say, ‘Lord, Lord’, and live not like prophets but like Pharisees and Romans. The consequences, Jesus warned, are tragic. If his disciples are salt like this, they will be thrown out. They will be no more useful than the rest of the soil on the ground.
Think of the possibilities for kingdom growth if they resolutely remained salty. What if they, unlike the scribes, loved their enemies! What if they, unlike the Romans, worked for God’s kingdom. What if they worked for justice instead of their own little empires!
Questions about evangelism, justice, cultural engagement, and social responsibility become surprising clear when we think in terms of promoting the life and flourishing of others. This view of the “salt of the earth” encourages us to discern where God is leading us by considering how our gifts and interests intersect with the barren places and the manure piles of the world.
“God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. Be happy about it! Be very glad! … And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way.” (Matthew 5:11-12)
You are kingdom people. You are heirs of the prophets. You, Jesus says, are salt.