August 10, 2014 MATTHEW 5:13-20
(from The Message by Eugene Peterson)
You are the salt of the earth, ___. Did you know that? It’s a line that goes way back to Jesus’ time, or probably before. He may not have invented it. But it’s stayed with us. “That woman is the salt of the earth. Those folks, they’re the salt of the earth.” What do we mean by that expression? How have you come to understand some person or group being “the salt of the earth?”
(solicit responses; solid citizen, hardworking, honest, kind, friendly, lives centered on their families, church, school, community, down to earth, common folk with an uncommon amount of common sense)
It’s flattering, being referred to as the salt of the earth. Something we can aspire to.
In our scripture reading today from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus calls his disciples just that: “You are the salt of the earth” he tells them. Now salt today is receiving some bad press because it causes high blood pressure. Some research suggests we limit our consumption to less than a teaspoon a day, which can be tricky, considering how much salt is in many of the foods we eat.
But in Jesus’ time this metaphor had far better press and wider implications. It was a precious commodity, sometimes used as wages instead of coins. It was rubbed on newborn children, (don’t ask me why?) used to seal covenants, sprinkled on sacrifices and even understood as a metaphor for wisdom.
When you think of salt, what do you think of? What are some of its uses?
* It enhances the flavor of foods. A little goes a long way. You may mix a small amount into what you’re cooking and the entire dish takes on a different flavor.
* Makes you thirsty. Ever wonder why bars set out salty foods for snacks?
*It was used as a disinfectant - salt in the wounds.
*a preservative - in a warm climate without refrigeration it was crucial to preserve food. It gave long life to all it permeated - led the OT prophets to use salt as a symbol of the eternal covenant God made with the Hebrew people, naming it the “Covenant of Salt.”
*It was used as a fertilizer in Jesus’ time and for centuries after. Salt was often scattered and worked into the soil in order to enhance the productivity of the land.
*It’s used here in the winter on our streets and sidewalks when they get icy.
So when Jesus said ‘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’ - it had many implications and quite possibly many layers of meaning to those early disciples.
You may be asking yourself, “What does he mean? Salt is salt. Sodium chloride is a stable compound that doesn’t loose its taste. But the salt Jesus was familiar with wasn’t pure. It was a crude mixture gathered from the Dead Sea, adulterated by many impurities. Rain sometimes dissolved the salt, leaving only the worthless impurities. So for people of his time, salt definitely could loose its saltiness.
So, that’s a little background. Now let’s listen to the entire passage and see what Jesus was saying to his followers, and to us. Matthew 5:13-20: as paraphrased by Eugene Peterson in “The Message.”
“Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.
Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hill top, on a light stand - shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.”
Don’t suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures -- either God’s Law or the Prophets. I’m not here to demolish but to complete. I am going to put it all together, pull it all together in a vast panorama. God’s Law is more real and lasting than the stars in the sky and the ground at your feet. Long after stars burn out and earth wears out, God’s law will be alive and working.
“Trivialize even the smallest item in God’s Law and you will only have trivialized yourself. But take it seriously, show the way for others, and you will find honor in the kingdom. Unless you do far better than the Pharisees in the matters of right living, you won’t know the first thing about entering the kingdom.
Matthew had to get his little dig in at the pharisees there. Jesus uses two metaphors to describe the disciples here, salt and light. I thought we’d concentrate on salt today.
You, all you disciples on that hill long ago, all you sitting in this room here today, are the salt of the earth. He’s talking plural here. He’s talking about the vocation of the people of Israel, of the church that followed.
When Jesus called that little band of ordinary people who formed his inner circle “the salt of the earth,” he was saying “you’re really important.” Just like salt is important in your lives, you are a precious commodity. We, all of us, may be a smaller church, in numbers and power, but don’t underestimate our importance. Just like salt in a bowl of oatmeal, God has a way of making a little go a long way. (remember the 5 loaves of bread and the two fish last week?) Jesus is letting them know that what the people of God do in the world really counts.
When Jesus called his disciples ‘the salt of the earth’, he understood that our civilization is always in danger of decay, and in need of a preservative. You don’t have to look far to see it. But Jesus’ followers survived the Roman Empire (which fell), the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, even the Post-Modern Era (so far). We’re still here - that salt-seasoning that brings out the God flavors of this earth.
When Jesus said ‘you are the salt of the earth,’ he was telling them, and us, that like that salt they used as fertilizer, it is our job to work in that earth among the people, moving within and among it, making the land more productive and fruitful by changing its very character.
While he’s telling us who or what we are, these metaphors are about what we do, how we do it and the effect of what we do on the world. It’s about finding our purpose and identity and doing something significant that will make a difference in the world around us. It may appear a small thing on the surface, but we can never be sure how the smallest of actions can blossom into something much greater that we’re not even aware of.
Remember, salt changes what it comes in contact with.
Jesus uses these images to describe his followers, and to inspire and encourage them in their mission in the world. But with his inspiring words comes a warning. Don’t loose your saltiness that brings out the God-flavors in others. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted or co-opted by the values of the culture that surrounds us.
And don’t fall victim to the cultural malady of compassion fatigue - brought on by the bottomless pit of human need and trouble all around us. It exhausts the soul. Don’t throw up your arms in discouragement thinking there is nothing we can do. It’s those times when our salt has turned flat and we’ve lost our usefulness.
Kim Bobo, who I heard giving an Earl Lecture at the Pacific School of Religion, encouraged us to act, regardless of our perceptions of our ability or inability to change situations on our own. “Use what God has given you”, she told us, “don’t focus on what you lack. You limit God and you limit the Spirit if you underestimate what you can do as an individual. (and I would add as a church) God chooses and uses ordinary people like you and me. Sometimes work that seems ordinary, God makes extraordinary.”
Question: How are we, the Eliot Church of Newton, the salt of the earth? How are we bringing out the God-flavors of this earth? or, how might we in this coming year?
Take a couple of minutes and then I’ll ask the table hosts to report back to the rest of us.
We are the salt of the earth here at the Eliot Church, and we are a light shining up on a hill. It is now up to each of us to keep that light shining brightly and keep spreading the salt. The world needs us. God needs us to do God’s work.