Matt 5.11-16 "You are the salt of the earth..."
[“Salt of the Earth”]
Everyone knows the kind of people to whom we point when we speak of “the salt of the earth.” These are the common people, the working people, who do this world’s necessary jobs. They are the unsung heroes on whom we depend every day. While we may depend on them, we do not have a solution for the difficulty of their lives. We can talk about how hard they work and want to ease their burden, but theirs is work that is truly necessary to maintaining the fabric of the world. So we speak with real affection when we speak of “the salt of the earth,” but we cannot do much to improve their lives.
Let us begin with the proverb: “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” We love the image, even though we are not quite sure what it means for *salt to lose its taste*.
Recently, I ran across a different interpretation of this passage that stands apart from almost every other. It comes from an article in Interpretation Journal; it was written by Dr. Paul Minear. At that time he was Professor Emeritus of Biblical Theology at Yale Divinity School. I have known him as one of the great Biblical scholars of my lifetime. I would like to take a bit of time this morning to outline his interpretation. Then, we can talk about the way this informs our lives as Christians.
I believe that each of the Beatitudes addresses a real situation encountered by Matthew’s Church. If they had been irrelevant, he would not have mentioned them. In other words, the community of Christians needed to remember that Jesus promised *Blessedness* for people who
+were poor in spirit,
+were among the meek,
+hungered and thirsted for righteousness,
+were persecuted for their righteousness,
+were reviled and persecuted on account of Jesus.
Matthew’s Christians were very likely among those people, or they personably knew Christians for whom that was the case.
The first eight Beatitudes speak of “those” people; now in the ninth Beatitude he is going to get personal: “Blessed are *you*...” He is now looking directly at the disciples. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you... on my account.”
This Beatitude is also different because it comes with an explanation that is longer than the Beatitude itself. All of this leads Dr. Minear to conclude that this last Beatitude is not so much part of the first eight as it is an introduction to a new passage now addressed to the disciples. Jesus is about to send his disciples out into the world in his name; he knows they will be persecuted. Jesus knows they will suffer for his sake and for the sake of the Gospel. He wants to prepare them.
11 "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Jesus is warning them that they will suffer persecution just as the Prophets did. In Matthew 10, Jesus will send the disciples out with authority to cure every disease and every sickness. He said:
16 "See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17 Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; 18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles (Matt 10.16-18).
These are strong words – warnings we pass over, assuming that they do not have anything to do with us. But, Matthew knew he had to tell all that Jesus had said to his disciples, because he knew that everything Jesus’ disciples did and suffered would happen to later disciples, too. He had to prepare them for the persecution and for the reward that awaited them. Suddenly, this is sounding very relevant to modern disciples of Jesus – like us.
Now, instead of starting a new section in the Sermon on the Mount, Dr. Minear wants us to see Jesus speaking – not the crowds, but – directly to his disciples with the very next words:
13 "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.
We have been taught to lift this saying out of the Sermon the Mount, focus mainly on the claim, “You are the salt of the earth,” and set aside all the rest. But, read this instead as an explanation intended for people who have been reviled and persecuted because of Jesus. What does it mean to us when we are reviled and persecuted for our faith to hear Jesus say that we are “the salt of the earth”?
1. First, it does not mean that we are the unsung, hard-working people of the earth.
2. The common interpretation of the “salt” as the seasoning that adds zest to our food also misses the point.
To understand the promise to the faithful: “You are the salt of the earth,” we have to begin by asking how salt was important in the Bible. You see, the Bible is still our best resource for interpreting the Bible itself. Let’s go to the O.T.
In Exodus 30.34-36, salt was one of the ingredients in the incense that was used in worship at the Tent of Meeting:
34 The LORD said to Moses: Take sweet spices... with pure frankincense 35 and make an incense... seasoned with salt, pure and holy; 36 and you shall beat some of it into powder, and put part of it before the covenant in the tent of meeting where I shall meet with you; it shall be for you most holy. Notice: “salt, pure and holy.”
Numbers 18.19 tells us that salt was used to seal a covenant bond between Aaron and all the whole succession of priests:
19 All the holy offerings that the Israelites present to the LORD I have given to you, together with your sons and daughters, as a perpetual due; it is a covenant of salt forever before the LORD for you and your descendants as well.
II Chronicles 13.5 tells us that salt was used for the covenant between God and the kings of Israel:
5 Do you not know that the LORD God of Israel gave the kingship over Israel forever to David and his sons by a covenant of salt?
Until now, I have completely missed the Biblical idea of the covenant of salt in the O.T., but it is plainly present and would have been observed in the worship that Jesus knew in the Temple during his life.
As Dr. Minear summed up the evidence from the scriptures:
Salt was used daily in the Temple offerings as an essential element in Israel’s worship. It was a bond that united the Lord to both the succession of priests and the succession of kings, and through them to the people. All generations were covered by these bonds, all being viewed as one in their obligation to and dependence upon God. God initiated the covenants of salt. To break the bond, therefore, would carry the most terrible consequences. In short these covenants of salt were intrinsic to the entire economy of nationhood, priesthood, kingship, worship, forgiveness of sins, national identity, and destiny (2).
So, this is the importance of SALT; salt carries the covenant between God and his people. Now, what is the connection between this *salt covenant with God* and the *earth*? Well, remember in Genesis when Cain killed his brother Abel? When Cain tried to hide it, God challenged him:
10 And the LORD said, "What have you done? Listen; your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground! 11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand.While we do not often speak this way, Jews and Christians have always held the conviction that sin affects not just individuals; *sin affects the whole earth*. Someone at Bible study Wednesday night gave a great example of this: he told how in Eastern Europe you can still see fields along the roadsides which are marked off as dangerous due to old mines – land mines left over from the Second World War, more than 60 years ago. The *land itself* is still dangerous. Thus, when redemption comes, it will heal the whole earth. You hear this in Isaiah 11.6-9:
6 The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.
You see, the earth needs to be healed from the sin of humanity just as much as human lives like ours need healing from sin. For Jesus to declare to all who would follow him, “You are the salt of the earth,” is to pronounce that those who carry the gospel into the world are the salt that brings this healing to the earth.
Thus, Jesus can say to the disciples as he is sending them out to face almost certain persecution, “You are the salt of the earth.” You are the salt covenant that restores the covenant of faithfulness with God. You are the salt that will bring healing not only to human lives but also to the whole earth. So, you can see that Jesus all this in mind when called his followers “the salt of the earth.” They are not just hard working folks. They are witnesses, disciples, in the tradition of great prophets who speak in the face of persecution so that the people and the nations might be healed of their sinfulness and restored in faithfulness to God. It was a message for them; it is now for us.
[APPLIC:] Hear Jesus speaking now to us as he spoke to other disciples long ago:
11 "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. 13 "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 underfoot.
Jesus is talking to his disciples about the risks and rewards of discipleship. We are sent, knowing that revilement and persecution will be our lot. If we are faithful, great is our reward in heaven.
Jesus is talking to his disciples about courageous discipleship: about witness, steadfastness, confidence in the face of resistance. Can we be those disciples? Are we willing to go with Jesus all the way – even to the cross?
[ILLUS: Ruby Bridges]
During the Civil Rights Movement, a federal judge ordered New Orleans to open its public schools to African-American children, and the white parents decided that if they had to let black children in, they would keep their children out. They let it be known that any black children who came to school would be in for trouble. So, the black children stayed home, too.
Except Ruby Bridges. Her parents sent her to school all by herself, six years old.
Every morning she walked alone through a heckling crowd to an empty school. White people lined up on both sides of the way and shook their fists at her. They threatened to do terrible things to her if she kept coming to their school. But every morning at ten minutes to eight Ruby walked, head up, eyes ahead, straight through the mob; two U.S. Marshals walked ahead of her and two walked behind her. Then, she spent her day alone with her teachers inside the big silent school building.
Harvard professor Robert Coles was curious about what goes into the making of courageous children like Ruby Bridges. He talked to Ruby’s mother and, in his book The Moral Life of Children, quotes her as saying, “There’s a lot of people who talk about doing good, and a lot of people who argue about what’s good and what’s not good. But there are other folks who “just put their lives on the line for what’s right” (3).
I do not know if Ruby Bridges and her family are Christians, nor whether they did all that out of Christian conviction, but her courage shows us the risk that she endured to stand for what was right.
[ILLUS: Protests in Egypt]
In Egypt, there is another example of people taking risks for what is right. The news reports boil the whole situation down to those for and those against President Mubarak. Any thinking person knows that there are a hundred decisions and positions to be taken every day as the demonstrations continue. What happens to President Mubarak remains to be seen. More importantly, what sort of society and what sort of government the Egyptian people will get out of this popular revolution remains to be seen. What is clear to me is the risk that every Egyptian is taking as this uprising continues: the protestors in the square, the President and his police, the army’s soldiers and the generals. The list goes on and on and the answers remain to be seen. But, the risks of either demonstrating or refusing to demonstrate surround them daily. May the Lord provide people of discernment and conviction who will step forward and take the risk to put their lives on the line for what is right.
Jesus said to those who would be his disciples: “Blessed are you when they revile you and persecute you... for you are the salt of the earth.” These courageous ones – these who put their lives on the line for what is right and faithful and just – they are the salt that heals the earth and restores it to God. Indeed, they are the salt that restores all of us to God again.
In the name of Jesus, you and I are sent to be the salt that heals the sin-sickness in our world.
Let us pray for others around the world today, who are stepping forward courageously to be the salt that heals – wherever they may be.
1. Minear, Paul S. “The Salt of the Earth,” Interpretation Journal of Bible and Theology, January, 1997, pp. 31ff.
2. Minear, Paul S. “The Salt of the Earth,” Interpretation Journal of Bible and Theology, January, 1997, pp. 37.
3. Smedes, Lewis. A Pretty Good Person, quoting Robert Coles writing in The Moral Life of Children.