Salt of the earth

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Colossians 4:2-6; Matthew 5:13

If we call someone “the salt of the earth” we usually mean they’re real, honest, straight-talking, uncomplicated and dependable.  Jesus had something else in mind.  Although figuring out what exactly is not easy.

Jesus begins the sermon on the mount with the beatitudes in which He proclaims the present-tense blessedness of His disciples.  These are the adjectives attached to the Christ-follower: meek, merciful, peace-making, etc.  In Matthew 5:13-14, Jesus goes on to proclaim the nouns: the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a city on a hill.

Notice that we haven’t yet come to any verbs, let alone imperatives. Jesus first tells us who we are.  And the first noun is in verse 13:

“Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.”

What does it mean?

Well the context speaks of distinct-ness.  Unsalty salt is the most useless thing you can imagine.  Unsalty salt is like dust – worthless.  And taken together with the “light” and the “city” images Jesus is saying that a salty Christian stands out.  Christians are different.

Notice, again, Jesus doesn’t say Christians really ought to be different.  It’s not that we should try to stand out.  We are different.  We simply are the salt of the earth.

But in what way are we different?

Well a popular approach is to say that salt was used as a preservative in ancient times.  Therefore Christians are to “preserve” the earth by being distinctively Christian.  John Stott spoke of Christ’s followers having a positive impact on society and then memorably said “Don’t blame the meat for going off, blame the salt.”

It’s a powerful thought.  Christians do have a positive social impact and when the world “goes bad” we should look within to see our own culpability.  But I’m not sure Jesus is talking about “preserving” here.

In the Old Testament, the main connotation associated with salt is “judgement.”  Lot’s wife was “assalted” so to speak (Genesis 19:26); the sacrifices were sprinkled with salt (e.g. Ezek 43:24); places of judgement were places of salt (e.g. 2 Samuel 8:13; Ezek 47:9ff); the new creation will be a place where fresh water triumphs over salt (Isaiah 11:9; Revelation 21:1).  And in the New Testament, Paul makes this intriguing comment:

“Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.”  (Colossians 4:6)

To answer “every man” requires “grace” on the one hand, “salt” on the other.  Again, it seems like the bite of salt is a bite of judgement.

So what does it mean that Christians are the salt of the earth?  Well on the one hand we are “light”, on the other we are “salt”.  On the one hand we shine into this world the light of Christ (more tomorrow).  On the other, we judge the earth with the judgement of Christ.  Our message is not simply that Christ is the Rock.  We also say, “And all else is sinking sand.”

The Christian is salty.  The Christian has bite.  But it’s worth asking ourselves today – have we lost our saltiness?

May we never flinch back from offering true judgement in the name of Christ, for we are the salt of the earth.

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