Again on Sunday I heard Matthew 5:13 preached, and Christians likened to salt. It is a very well known and often quoted Bible verse spoken by Jesus to His disciples, in what is known as the Sermon on the Mount: “You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt loses its savour, with what shall it be salted? It is no longer good for anything, but to be thrown out and to be trodden underfoot by men.”
For once, however, there was a tantalising phrase of explanation given as we were reminded that salt is used for preserving food, to stop it rotting. The preacher went on to say that this is the job of Christians in present day society, to stop it rotting; seamlessly embracing the verse into the sermon.
Yes, salt is used to preserve food and in many preindustrial societies, perhaps that was indeed the main use for salt – in quantitative terms anyway. Jesus asks what if the salt loses its savour – and this brings us to the other major use of salt – though in small quantities, to add flavour to food. Unsalted food is typically bland and flavourless and usually no particular joy to eat.
Let us look at the first part of v5:13 again, which says “You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt loses its savour, with what shall it (the earth) be salted?” (NKJV Emphasis added). Paraphrased (authors own), it is saying: “You are the salt of the earth, and if you are no longer salty, how will the earth be salted?”
What Jesus is really saying to us here is this: We – His disciples – all Christian leaders – all Christians – if we lose our saltiness, if we lose our ability to preserve and flavour the earth for Him, what then? If we lose our ability to do that for Him, how then will the peoples of earth be preserved? How will the people’s lives on earth be made flavoursome, tasty and a joy? How will life continue – for without salt, there is no life.
Jesus goes on to say that if the salt loses it saltiness, it is useless, other than being thrown out and trodden under foot. That makes sense: if salt is useless as salt, then it can only be thrown out! But I have never heard of salt losing its saltiness – for even if sits in a packet on a shelf, year after year, it still salty salt. What then is Jesus talking about – “a salt that loses it saltiness”?
The salt we use is common salt or as Wikipedia says “sodium chloride, also known as salt, common salt, table salt or halite, is an ionic compound with the formula NaCl.” Now if you take the Na or the Cl out of NaCl, it is no longer salt and is toxic; but that just does not normally happen. For sure, Jesus was not talking about factory pure packed common salt, as we know it today.
Then we have sea salt, and rock salt. But sea salt is 85.6% NaCl (common salt) with additional minerals left behind as sea water is evaporated and again, a fairly stable product not prone to lose its saltiness. This leaves us with rock salt.
Rock salt is the mineral form of sodium chloride and was formed when salty waters dried out, resulting in layers of salt which vary in purity, from pure sodium chloride in clear crystal form, to that which is mixed with soil and plant material. Now this seems more akin to the words of Jesus. In fact “Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible” says:
“In eastern countries, however, the salt used was impure, or mingled with vegetable or earthy substances, so that it might lose the whole of its saltiness, and a considerable quantity of earthy matter remain. This was good for nothing, except that it was used to place in paths, or walks, as we use gravel. This kind of salt is common still in that country. It is found in the earth in veins or layers, and when exposed to the sun and rain, loses its saltiness entirely. Maundrell says, “I broke a piece of it, of which that part that was exposed to the rain, sun, and air, though it had the sparks and particles of salt, yet it had perfectly lost its savour. The inner part, which was connected to the rock, retained its savour, as I found by proof.”
Additionally, Dr. Thomson (The Land & the Book, vol. ii. pages 43, 44) says:
“I have often seen just such salt, and the identical disposition of it that our Lord has mentioned. A merchant of Sidon having farmed of the government the revenue from the importation of salt, brought over an immense quantity from the marshes of Cyprus – enough, in fact, to supply the whole province for at least 20 years. This he had transferred to the mountains, to cheat the government out of some small percentage. Sixty-five houses in June – Lady Stanhope’s village were rented and filled with salt. These houses have merely earthen floors, and the salt next the ground, in a few years, entirely spoiled. I saw large quantities of it literally thrown into the street, to be trodden underfoot by people and beasts. It was ‘good for nothing.’ “
So there is confirmation of the secular reality of the words of Jesus, taken not from a biblical perspective, but practical observation of life in the bible lands and comparable to experiences of Jesus.
But is there more in the words of Jesus in regards to salt? The answer is certainly, Yes. Matthew 13:33 gives us a clue as Jesus said “The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.” Jesus often used leaven in His teachings, as in Matthew 16:6 He warns us to “take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.” The explanation is provided in First Corinthians 5:6 where Paul says to us: “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?”
Yes, as even a small amount of leaven will work its way through the whole lump or bread dough, so too will a little salt work its way through whatever it is mixed into. Sea water contains only 3% of salt, yet all of the sea is salty. The Christians, therefore, though even in a minority in any land or community, can make a difference for this world, and for the Kingdom of Christ.
As the Henry Matthew Commentary on the Whole Bible says of Salt:
“The doctrine of the Gospel is as salt;
It is penetrating, quick, and powerful (Hebrews 4:12);
It reaches the heart (Acts 2:37).
It is cleansing,
It is relishing, and
Preserves from putrefaction.
We read of the savour of the knowledge of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:14); for all other learning is insipid without that.
An everlasting covenant is called a covenant of salt (Numbers 18:19);
and the gospel is an everlasting gospel.
Salt was required in all the sacrifices (Leviticus 2:13),
in Ezekiel’s mystical temple (Ezekiel 43:24).
Now Christ’s disciples having themselves learned the doctrine of the gospel, and being employed to teach it to others, were as salt.
Note, Christians, and especially ministers, are the salt of the earth.”
As Pliny wrote: “Sine sale, vita humana non potest degere’ – “Without salt human life cannot be sustained.” Yes, this is how important Jesus saw His Christian disciples – without them, His ministers, life cannot be sustained. It was important enough for Jesus say again in Mark 9:50 “Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
Paul emphasises Jesus’ words, saying in Colossians 4:6 “Let your speech be always with grace, having been seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.” Paul is saying here, we must not just be good, but we must insinuate ourselves, we must worm our way, into the minds of others by our words, actions and life styles, while we serve no secular interests of our own. There are no blessings which the world has for Christians: just a huge pile of unsavoury stuff lying on a bed of ignorance, wickedness and sin. So Christ sent forward his disciples and foot soldiers, so that as they seasoned the world with knowledge and grace, it could be rendered acceptable to God. And how do the disciples, the foot soldiers of Christ achieve this? Again the analogy of salt comes into play; it is not achieved by piling on a heap of salt and preserving that which exists, but by sprinkling the salt, scattering the salt on the meat of our society grain by grain, just as God scattered the Levites throughout Israel. Wherever the disciples, the foot soldiers of Christ live, they can savour their community and society as they live their lives for Christ and as they carry out the Great Commission.
Salt continues to have a hold on us outside the Bible too, though no doubt influenced from its Biblical references to some extent, especially in Europe in the middle ages. Thus in western society, it is traditional that a saltcellar sits on the dining table, just next to the pepper, replacing the spice box of olden days, as if cooks don’t know how to season meals properly. In fact, salt was once considered a very expensive luxury item and put on the table for guests to use, in order to show them great respect and confidence. If one sat ‘above’ the salt, one had a position of status at the table, compared to those who sat ‘below’ the salt. Salt also symbolises the sacred; for it is often said that the devil offers meals without salt. Perhaps that is why worldly superstition says salt exorcises evil, and through its healing and disinfectant properties, it also wards off misfortune. Indeed, our European forefathers put salt on the table for Christmas Eve. Specific superstitions regarding salt arose, such as never give any salt or fire while milk churning is going on. To ‘upset the salt,’ was also exceedingly ‘unlucky’ and bad omen; so to avert evil, it has to be gathered up, and the salt and flung it over the right shoulder into the fire, with the left hand.
The various symbolic values of salt and the associated rituals may often be explained by its physical properties: e.g. its symbolic significance of purity perhaps coming from its colour, and from its preservation qualities. It also symbolises friendship and loyalty because, like salt, they can disappear but will then reappear, as solid as a rock! In the Last Supper, Leonardo de Vinci portrays a saltcellar tipped over under Judas’ elbow. In ancient times, records show Romans gave salt and thus ‘wisdom’ to newborns, but they also salted the ground of conquered lands, rendering them infertile. A shortage of salt became seen as an ‘ill omen’, portending the end, shortage, illness and precariousness, such as the saltless bread of the city of Florence, which became a symbol of resistance in the besieged city. In Malagasy, salt and sacred are the same word: fanasina.
History and secular tradition aside, from a biblical perspective however, we can say that it is an ill omen to have salt fall from us. For when this happens, we lose, as Jesus said, our saltiness, we are no ”longer good for anything, but to be thrown out and to be trodden underfoot by men.”
I pray Lord, that You will bless those reading this posting, with an abundance of Your salt in their lives. Salt them Lord, such that as they touch the lives, the minds and the hearts of those around them, that the sweet savour of Your Kingdom will be upon them. Let them be a rich blessing to all those around them and to the Glory of Your Kingdom and Your Church. Let them understand how to be Your Disciples and Your Ministers, such that lives, societies and communities will be changed, as the salt of their Christianity, permeates all around them.
In the mighty name of Jesus I pray.
Amen and Amen and Amen.