“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.”
Matthew 5:13 (NRSV)
Very early on in Israel’s history, salt was the most ubiquitous condiment there was, and there was always a plentiful supply of it due to the Dead Sea. In arid regions, salt was vital to survival. It flavored food just as it does in cookery, today. It was a preservative. Newborns were rubbed in it. It was used to flavor foods that were of low quality. It was given to animals. Salt was not considered food, so you could eat it if you were fasting. It was so essential to everyday life that an expression arose “eating a man’s salt,” which meant that you were taking his livelihood.
Because salt was so much a part of everyday life in the region, it also had several ritual purposes. It was required with every offering to the Lord, and priests were allowed to use the consecrated salt for flavoring when they ate their portions. It was used to top off a ritual cleansing bath. It was present at any kind of meal that sealed a covenant – a tradition that is alive and well in the Levant, today.
Jesus, here, pinpoints the flavoring aspect of salt – a point of reference that would have easily spoken to anyone in the audience. Salt was common, but it was also very important.
However, the value of salt depends on it being salty. What would you do with salt if it were no longer salty? You can’t salt salt, Jesus tells us, and he has a point. If the salt no longer has its distinctive characteristics that make it what it is, it’s of no good to anyone. The only thing left for it is to throw it out where it will be trampled.
This illustration imports some disturbing eschatological language.
In Isaiah 14, the idea of being cast out and trampled underfoot has a referent in God’s judgement against Babylon:
All the kings of the nations lie in glory,
each in his own tomb;
but you are cast out, away from your grave,
like loathsome carrion,
clothed with the dead, those pierced by the sword,
who go down to the stones of the Pit,
like a corpse trampled underfoot.
Isaiah 14:18-19 (NRSV)
I will break the Assyrian in my land,
and on my mountains trample him under foot;
his yoke shall be removed from them,
and his burden from their shoulders.
Isaiah 14:25 (NRSV)
But those are just a couple of examples of many places where God’s people are described as being trampled by oppressors, such as Antiochus Epiphanes:
Then I heard a holy one speaking, and another holy one said to the one that spoke, “For how long is this vision concerning the regular burnt offering, the transgression that makes desolate, and the giving over of the sanctuary and host to be trampled?”
Daniel 8:13 (NRSV)
Or that the oppressors will be trampled by God. There’s even a Psalm or two that pleads with God to trample the tramplers. The point is that the image of trampling underfoot is an image of impending doom. The enemies of God trample His people, but He will one day trample them.
This is what adds the bite to Jesus’ analogy. His followers are like salt, but if the salt loses what makes it salty – if it loses its distinctiveness – it is good for nothing but to be trampled underfoot. If his followers lose what makes them distinctive, and they become just like everyone else, they will face the same end as everyone else.
This sentiment is restated in the letter to the Laodicean church in Revelation 3:
“I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”
Revelation 3:15-17 (NRSV)
The Laodiceans had become rich and prosperous and self-sufficient. They had embraced the ideals of the world that was passing away and no longer looked like a faithful community of Christ followers. They looked like a community of well-to-do businessmen. This put them in danger of the coming judgement. They had lost what made them “salty” and blandly blended in with the Roman Empire, and they were rewarded with financial success. But they did not realize this had put them in the camp that would find itself shut out from the kingdom. Jesus would spit them out of his mouth.
Again from Matthew:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.'”
Matthew 7:21-23 (NRSV)
Once again, this is not how you win friends and influence people. This is the worst youth rally ever. It doesn’t matter how many “spiritual victories” you can claim if your life and values look just like the world that is passing away.
And here’s the kicker – you don’t even have to be particularly evil to fall into this trap. You can live a perfectly normal life making an ok living owning your handful of things and going to church most Sundays (well, synagogue on Saturdays, for Jesus’ audience), and still be trampled underfoot, because you have no saltiness. Broad is the road that leads to destruction, Jesus warns his followers. It’s easy. All you have to do to be destroyed with the present evil age is fit in with it. If you look like a citizen of that age, no amount of proof or protestation will convince Jesus that you actually belong to the age to come.
It might be easy to think of this in terms of particular moral standards, and that may be applicable to an extent, but the Sermon on the Mount really hasn’t addressed having high moral standards. Perhaps that’s a given; I don’t know. But the Sermon on the Mount up to this point has been about being faithful to the coming kingdom – joining up with the poor, the oppressed, the outsiders – those longing for a new world that will turn the one that you’re in on its head – the restoration of Israel, and being that community of peace, being that kingdom where any outsider could look at you and realize that you believe Jesus is Lord and the kingdom is among you.
While we do not have the impending judgement Jesus’ original audience did, we do have a world that is passing away and a new one invading it. No matter how real wealth, power, violence, self-exaltation, self-righteousness, and hatred seem, they all belong to a world order that is passing away. A new world has snuck in right under its nose.
In some places, it grows quickly. In others, slowly, but it is powered by the Spirit of God who is making all things new and guaranteed by His promise.
- In what ways should the people of God as a group look different than the world at large?
- What are the areas in your own life where the kingdom of God has not yet taken hold, and you’re just running off the defaults of your culture or the way you were raised?