In ancient times, the Greek poet Homer called salt a divine substance. Plato described it as being especially dear to the gods. Today, we take salt for granted as we reach for it in our kitchens to season our food. But salt does much more than that. It seasons yes, but it also cures, and preserves. It also seals, cleans, and acts as an antiseptic. According to the website ‘Salt Works’ there are over 14,000 uses for salt today, and no doubt more are being discovered somewhere around the world as we are gathered here. Until about a hundred years ago, when modern chemistry and geology revealed its prevalence, salt was one of the most sought after commodities.
In times past, it has served as currency, been responsible for trade routes and the establishment of great cities, provoked and financed wars, and played a strategic part in others. Taxes on salt have secured empires and inspired revolution. Mohandas Gandhi chose as his means of rebellion against British colonialism, the revolutionary act of contravening Britain’s salt policy. The Romans (the people who occupied and governed the area that Jesus lived in) appear to have esteemed salt highly. The Roman army, for a time, was even paid in salt. This is the origin of the word “salary” and the expressions “worth her salt” and “earning his salt.” In fact, the Latin word sal became the French word solde, meaning “pay,” and has come down to us in the word “soldier.” And the Romans used to salt their greens, which is the origin of the word “salad,” which simply means salted.
We could say that history has been shaped by salt, the only rock that humans eat. We could also say that theology – what we say and believe about God – has been influenced by it as well.
During biblical times, salt was much more precious than we think of it today, and people better understood its value, and t is in this context that Jesus says to his disciples, ‘everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’ It is a difficult passage both to hear and to understand: the disciples – concerned about their own status and importance in the new world that Jesus is inaugurating – complain to Jesus that someone else is casting out demons in Jesus’ name. A reminder to us that the uniqueness of Jesus is not found in the stories of his miracles – there were many prophets and miracle workers reported in the time of Jesus, although we might suspect that most of them were not very successful.
Jesus dismisses the complaint from John, after all if someone is trying to do something worthwhile in his name, whether he is a disciple or not it is at least a step in the right direction. Even those who give a cup of water to assist in God’s work of loving and saving the world, whether they understand what they are involved in or not, will not lose their reward. And then we are drawn suddenly into something really serious. More than just rivalry or tribalism – questions about who is most important, or who is in and who is out, but about what’s most important to God when he sees us – our identity and our integrity.
Don’t worry about others, Jesus says, look at yourselves. It would be better for you to drown in the sea rather than become a stumbling block. It would be better for you to cut off your hand, cut off you foot, tear out your eye than to stumble and be thrown into hell. It is a terribly difficult to make sense of all of this. And the greatest biblical scholars are unable to agree on what we should do with texts like this. What most are agreed on is that this is not one encounter in the life of Jesus and his disciples, but rather a section in the Gospel where the authors have gathered together a number of things that Jesus said, and which they do not want to be lost, and have put them together as if they were one dialogue.
There have been saints – holy men and holy women – down through the centuries who have cut off arms and legs in order to seek to live pure lives. It might have helped them, I don’t know. What I am pretty sure of is that if I had brought an axe to church this morning so that we could give it a try you would have had me arrested for my own safety fairly quickly. Given that none of the disciples themselves went off and cut off their limbs we can be fairly sure that they all understood that Jesus was speaking metaphorically, in picture language, rather than literally.
It is all about identity and integrity. When God looks at us he doesn’t see our hands and feet, he doesn’t see our eyes, he sees the person within us, what those around us might call the heart or the spirit, but which we Christians call the soul. That’s what is left if we cut off everything else. Without hands or feet or eyes or ears there is still something essentially alive within us. Even when life itself draws to a close in our mortal bodies, our souls live on for eternity. Jesus offers a stark contrast, two divergent possibilities for our eternal destiny. To live within God’s everlasting embrace or to be thrown into a place where that love is not present.
What kinds of images were conjured up in your mind by the word ‘hell’ when you heard it in the Gospel reading a few moments ago. I suspect that if we were to spend some time talking about it honestly as a community this morning, we would discover that our imaginations are limited, or perhaps conditioned by things that we were taught a great many years ago. Some of us when we hear the word ‘hell’ will imagine fire, some of us will imagine pain, some of us will imagine the terror of nothingness. What would be true about our mind’s ability to create a picture story about hell, would of course also be true, in a more pleasant way about how we conceive of heaven, and a great many other religious ideas as well. We might not be able to pinpoint where the images that we connect with heaven and hell have come from, but for the majority of us they will have been with us for many years.
Heaven and hell, living for God, or living for ourselves. These are the awful choices that Jesus places before his disciples, both then and now. Jesus says that it is like salt. Those who are truly his disciples will have flavour on the inside, and those who don’t will be like salt that has lost its saltiness. ‘Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?’ Stop comparing yourself to everyone else, says Jesus. Don’t worry about whether other people are doing the right thing, until you know that your soul – your identity, your integrity – is truly flavoursome for the kingdom. ‘Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’
One biblical commentator lists as many as fourteen characteristics of salt that can be applied to followers of Jesus. He mentions for example that salt is refined. So as Christians we must have impurities removed from ourselves. He says that salt melts, so Christians should thaw bitterness and prejudice. He says that salt creates thirst, so there should be something about us that makes other people want to have what we have, and salt spreads. All useful analogies for what it means to follow Jesus and to bring others along with us. Some of you will be finishing the list of characteristics of salt that can be applied to the way that we strive to live our lives, in your own minds as I speak. But there is one other that I want to leave with you. In the time of Jesus salt was understood to be more than just a preservative, there was a sense that it could make things last for eternity.
Throughout the Old Testament, in the period where God’s chosen people offered sacrifices to God of animals, they were commanded always to include salt with their sacrifices, and these sacrifices, of animals with salt, continued in the Temple in the time of Jesus. The salt was added, not to make the food taste better for God, but because there was a belief that the sacrifice, if made with salt, would last forever in God’s eyes. It would not be a momentary sacrifice consumed by the flames, but an ever-present offering before God. Knowing this, rather changes the way that we hear the words of Jesus this morning.
If ever we thought that our efforts to live holy lives were momentary and insignificant, then this teaching of Jesus calls us to re-assess. Be the salt says Jesus, the flavoursome, preserving salt. Be a living sacrifice, joined with the sacrifice of Christ, because if you are, then your lives, like the life of Jesus to whom you are joined, will have an eternal consequence.
If you have to lose everything – even your limbs (as it were) to keep your identity as a Child of God intact, then it would be a price worth paying in the eternal scheme of things. Put this first. Make it your life’s work. Have salt in yourselves.