Last week, we saw that the Beatitudes of Jesus were not the “be happy attitudes” of Robert Schuller. What Jesus says here is far more profound that the shallow interpretation that Schuller offers. Schuler gives advice which might provide temporary happiness at the danger of eternal hellfire for not taking the gospel seriously. Jesus instead shows that the true badge of election is that if you are a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ you will suffer in the world for it. Liars will slander you and speak evil of you. If the Christian experiences persecution for the sake of Christ and not for one’s own foolishness, that this is a sure sign of election, much more sure than wealth or standing among humankind.
Today we will continue with the Sermon on the Mount with verse 13 keeping the Beatitudes in mind. Just what does it mean to be “the salt of the earth”? Come and see.
Exposition of the Text
Jesus begins this section with the emphatic “You”. It almost has the force “You and no one else are the salt of the earth.” It is important then to know who the “you” are and what salt is. Is Jesus just addressing His immediate disciples as some think? Or is Jesus addressing the entire crowd of those who followed Him to the mount? Or as this sermon is recorded in Scripture, does it address someone else. We addressed this issue in the previous sermons. It seems best to address this as referring to all true disciples of Jesus of all ages who hear His words and puts them into practice. Hopefully, then this includes all of us here this morning.
Salt was used as money in the ancient world. In fact this is where we get the word “salary” from. Roman soldiers were paid in salt which could be traded for other goods. It was used as a seasoning for food. It was also mixed with dried dung to make a hot burning fuel. Salt is also necessary to sustain life. Finally, salt acted as a preservative in a world that did not have refrigerators. Meat which would spoil quickly in the heat was salt dried to make ham or jerky which could be kept for long periods of time. So it can be seen how valuable salt was in the ancient world.
But just what connection to salt is Jesus comparing His disciples. It is obvious that He considers them valuable to Him and His purposes for them. In this, most commentators would agree, But some would see the use of the gospel of seasoning, a way to improve quality of life. If one held this view, then the goal of existence is to live “your best life now” and help others to have their best life now as well. But taken in context of this sermon as well as Scripture as a whole, can one honestly say that this is what is meant here? The living of the good life now, untroubled by the affairs of live was the teaching of Epicurus, not Jesus. However, this view of Christianity is immensely popular today. Doesn’t everyone dream of a life that is unburdened by cares?
Does the reference to salt equate the disciple of Jesus as a money manager to help people accumulate wealth in this life? I haven’t heard of anyone taking this particular verse in this way, although they quote plenty of Scripture in supporting their views. There are all kinds of “Christian” ministries out there who want to help you get out of debt, diversify your investments, and prepare you for retirement. O yes, they throw in paying your tithes to the church first as though this is a means for you to increase the other 90%. Again, this is wildly popular in Christian circles today. But is Scripture as a whole or the Sermon on the Mount all that concerned about wealth in this life? This seems to completely miss the point of Jesus who has just pronounces blessings upon the persecuted for His name’s sake. Jesus’ disciples are called to be faithful rather than to seek worldly approval. Besides, other than the idea of tithing, what advice can they give on financial management that any competent financial advisor might give apart from the Scripture? And frankly, the markets tend to be rigged in favor of the rich and privileged. So is the economy as a whole. This approach is oriented too much in the present age and not the age to come.
Others look at the preservative qualities of salt and think the Christian disciples are to act to suppress evil in this world and assist in the application of God’s common grace. In other words, our purpose is to prevent, reverse, or at least slow down the moral rot that is occurring in this world today. It is certain that this world is morally rotten. And it is Scriptural that God restrains the world from exercising this rottenness to its capacity or else humankind would have destroyed itself from the face of the earth already. It is also true that the Bible tells us to be decent, honest, and hardworking citizens, to pray for the government in power which is of God, etc. But again, this is not the thrust of the verse or even of the ministry of Jesus. Christianity is not a moral crusade against evil which needs a “moral majority”, an oxymoron if ever I saw one. The church is not on mission when it gets entangled in politics and make common cause with non-Christian or quasi-Christian groups for the sake of morality. This has been a great temptation to the church over the ages. But if we look to Jesus, we will find that He made common cause with none of the religious or political groups of His day. In fact, the Sadducees, the religious liberals, the Pharisees, the religious conservatives, the Herodians, the political left, and the Zealots, the political right all got together to crucify Jesus. Jesus sends His disciples into the world to preach the gospel, not a moralistic crusade.
Another interesting interpretation was the mixing of salt with dung to make the fire burn hotter. Those who hold to this idea would say that the disciples of Jesus were going out into a world that was very mixed up, as precious salt. The disciple of Jesus is to be in the world. I would suppose the warning in this context is to be in the world but not get mixed up with it, lest one lose one’s saltiness. The Northern Kingdom of Israel mixed up the worship of the true God with idols to the point that they no longer had a distinct identity. Because of this, God sent the Assyrians to trample on the nation and to carry it away into oblivion.
Whereas, I still have questions whether Jesus is referring to the practice of mixing salt with dung, this interpretation at least gets closer to the Biblical idea of the distinctiveness the disciples of Jesus is to have. Another name for “distinctiveness” is “holiness”. This holiness has to be lived out in this world in such a way that it draws the attention of the world. Considering that Jesus follows this statement on salt with that of a city on a hill that cannot be hid, this idea is at least suggested here as well. We are not to live our lives in a sequestered monastery, apart from the troubles of this world. Rather, we are to live our faith out in the world, without becoming like the world.
Lastly, another use of salt was that it was used in the Jewish sacrificial system to season the offering. Could Jesus be emphasizing that Christian living is sacrificial. In the sense of the persecution that the true disciple of Jesus was to be blessed with, this idea does have some merit here as well, Many Christians would glorify their savior by laying down their lives for the faith.
We have looked at several possible interpretations of what Jesus meant by calling the true Christian disciple the “salt of the earth.” We can be comforted by the fact that God considers us to be of great value, regardless of what the world thinks of us. It is interesting that the word “lost its savor” is the same word in Greek for “moron”. The world does indeed consider the preaching of the cross to be moronical (foolishness). The world would like to trample Christianity into the dust. But what the world considers foolish and tasteless is really God’s wisdom unto salvation. We must be bold to proclaim this message.
We must also avoid mixing our message with human wisdom, the stuff Paul would alter say was but dung in relation to the saving message of Christ. Salt is salt. Salt tastes good as salt, but if it is mixed with dung, how appetizing is the message? The trouble is that we think we are doing God a favor and making the fire of the gospel burn brighter. We feel that it makes the message of Jesus more palatable. Again, we must avoid this temptation at all costs. The church is suffering from a severe salt deficiency. In a world which has a diet too rich with earthly salt to be healthy, we are offering a salt less alternative which seems good on the surface. But salt deficiency kills quickly. Paul tells us that our message is always to be seasoned with salt. We have the salt that the world is dying for. This is not the time to be stingy with it. This is not time to offer dung on the menu in its place.