Sunday, August 27, 2017

THE SALT OF THE EARTH

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men” (Matthew 5:13, NIV).
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We today use the phrase “the salt of the earth” to speak of a person who lives his life in a wholesome and unpretentious manner. When we say that someone is “the salt of the earth,” it implies that he is honest and forthright, and living without deceit. In the verse quoted above, Jesus used it in the same way. Unlike many other phrases that have been passed on through the generations and for thousands of years, the meaning of this one seems not to have changed much since Jesus spoke it in the first century.

Actually, as far as what we have in recorded history, the use of this phrase by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount was the very first time that it was used. Nevertheless, because of the important role that salt played in the daily lives and in the thinking of the people of that day, the meaning of the phrase would not have been difficult for his hearers to understand.

Salt was something that these people saw as indispensable. It was, above everything else, a preservative—something that was used to keep food from spoiling and putrefying. 

Salt in History
 Despite the fact that we call it “common table salt,” it was not so common in those days. No doubt in the immediate area of Palestine it was not so difficult to obtain because of the proximity of the Mediterranean Sea (and of course the Dead Sea, or as it was actually known in those days, the Salt Sea).

Nevertheless, throughout history, in every part of the world, “Where to get salt?” has been an important question for entire nations of people. Many of the world’s ancient trade routes were first established for the purpose of trading for and obtaining salt.
 

It was in the seventh to the eleventh centuries when the Mediterranean countries of North Africa, desirous for the gold that was found in the sub-Sahara countries, established the trade routes that began to link the regions north of the great Sahara desert with those to the south. The Mediterranean countries had great salt reserves, which they knew people in the south needed. And the countries south of the desert had gold. That is what the Mediterranean countries wanted. A trade route was established, and for hundreds of years, the gold from the south of Africa was purchased with the salt from the north.

Among other and almost-forgotten trade routes of the world were the salt-bearing caravans of llamas that traveled from the salt mines in the high planes of Bolivia to other areas of the ancient Andean Mountain kingdoms, bringing salt to mountainous regions throughout much of South America.

There were also the ancient “Salt Ways” of the Himalayan traders, carrying salt from the salt lakes of the Tibetan Plateau to Nepal and to India. So contested were these trading routes, that even in the time of the British rule in India, the Brits planted a great and continuous hedge of thorny and impenetrable plants that stretched the breath of the whole country of India, just to protect and to tax these routes.

In the same general historical time as Jesus, the Romans gave soldiers an allowance for buying salt, which they called their salarium. It is from this word that we get our word for that which we are paid, our salary. Even before the Romans, the Greeks had used salt as a trading currency for the purchasing of slaves. A slave that seemed not worth the price being asked for him was said to be “not worth his salt.”

Of course, none of these tidbits of history have anything to do with the words of Jesus except to illustrate for us the tremendous importance of that white, crystalline mineral that comes out of our saltshaker. Today, we do not easily recognize this importance, because we have not suffered the devastating health effects of salt starvation. Salt deprivation has much more severe physical consequences than the over consumption of salt, about which we most often hear in our culture. In these present days, we instead look for ways to reduce our salt consumption. 

Salt in Old Testament Worship
 If we can extend the international and historical importance of salt to the spiritual realm, we can see that Jesus was using more than a catchy phrase in this illustration by referring to his disciples as the “salt of the earth.” The disciples of Jesus, both the disciples in his day and in our own day, are to fulfill a very important role in the world.

The people listening to Jesus understood this significance. This crucial role of salt to which Jesus was referring was also part of their history. As the chosen people of God, when God was giving the instructions to them for making the articles and furniture for the tabernacle in the wilderness, the incense was to be used in worship as giving honor to the heavenly Father of the people. This worship was to be uncontaminated, which meant that it was to be, as their saying went, “seasoned with salt, pure and holy” (Exodus 30:35 ESV).

Salt was also used in the grain offering for the same purpose: “Every grain offering of yours, moreover, you shall season with salt, so that the salt of the covenant of your God shall not be lacking from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt” (Leviticus 2:13).

In fact, God called all of the offerings a part of the “everlasting covenant of salt” that God had with his people (Numbers 18:19).

This purifying quality of salt as that which purifies is brought out in an experience of Elisha, the prophet of God, who lived hundreds of years before the time of Christ. As Elisha was staying in the city of Jericho, some men of the city came to him with a problem. “Look,” they said to him, “this town is well situated, as you can see, but the water is bad, and the land is unproductive.”

Elisha told them to bring to him a new bowl filled with salt. The prophet then threw the salt into the source of the water for the city, that is, into the spring of water, and said, “This is what the Lord says: ‘I have healed this water, never again will it cause death or make the land unproductive’” (2 Kings 2:19-22, NAS).

Salt was a symbol of purity and preservation, as it remains so even to this day. 

Salt in New Testament Worship
“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus told his disciples. The role of the disciples in Jesus’s own day, as it is today, was to be an agent of purity and preservation in the world. As raw meat that is left unsalted in the open air soon becomes rancid, so too the world itself would putrefy and decompose without the presence of spiritual salt. It is the effect of the spiritual salt in our lives that keeps the world from becoming rancid and spreading death.

Nevertheless, the simple presence of salt is not enough. There is an additional danger in our daily lives in regard to our ability to be an agent of purification. It is a danger that we often do not recognize.

After Jesus told his disciples that they were the salt of the earth, he did not even catch his breath before he said this: “But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.”

Jesus said much the same thing in another occasion: “Salt is good; but if even salt has become tasteless, with what will it be seasoned? It is useless either for the soil or for the manure pile; it is thrown out. He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Luke 14:34-35, NAS).

How is it that salt can become tasteless? When we buy a box of salt at the supermarket, we will notice that it has no expiration date on the package—or if there is an expiration date, it is only because the crystals might begin to bond together over time.

But salt does not spoil. It is because of this fact that it is used as a preservative. When we shake salt out of our saltshaker to flavor and bring out the taste of our breakfast eggs, we are using a seasoning that may have been naturally processed in the earth thousands of years ago.

So if salt does not lose its “saltiness” over eons of ages, what danger does it have in becoming bland in our present day? 

Losing Saltiness
There is one way. I referred earlier to the salt traders of the Bolivian Altiplanos and other places. Some of the salt processed in these areas is scraped from a surface of the ground where salty water had collected and then evaporated by the sun, leaving only the very pure salt.

My family and I once lived along the gulf coast in Mexico, where the gatherers of sea salt would come once a year to the salt marshes near our home to do the same. However, in Bolivia and many other places, the salt harvesters also mined (and still do mine) the salt that had been laid down years and centuries before.

To do this, the salt miners must dig down to get past the clay and dirt that has washed in over the years to cover the deposits of salt. As they dig, the first layers of salt that they uncover are not pure. Through the downward leaching of the soil, clay and even rocks have become imbedded in the salt. As the harvesters continue to dig, they then come to salt layers that still have a little dirt mixed in but that might be suitable for animal consumption. However, the miners must dig deeper still to finally reach the salt that has not been corrupted by foreign materials. This is the pure salt.

The top layers of this salt mine are unusable. The salt in these layers has been so degraded by other minerals from the earth, that it has lost its usefulness as salt. When Jesus spoke of salt becoming tasteless, He was referring to salt that had been so corrupted by the earth that there was no saltiness to it. How is one to make it salty again?

There is no practical way to do this. The salt, even though the salt is still present within the whole mix, is rendered valueless. It is, as Jesus said, good for nothing. One cannot even throw it in the compost heap to be used as a fertilizer, since too much of it would make the ground sterile.

In our present day, we are so far removed from the idea of digging for our salt that we have trouble grasping this illustration of purity. The very phrase, “the salt of the earth,” is used freely without really understanding its significance.

For the follower of Christ, however, there should be great significance. There should also be serious introspection when Jesus warns against allowing ourselves to be contaminated with that which should not be parts of our lives, lest, like the salt that is corrupted, we become useless. 

How We Can Lose Our Saltiness?
 Just as the natural and pure salt, first laid down by the evaporation of some ancient sea thousands of years ago, slowly begins to become contaminated; our own purity also may be contaminated. The infiltration of the soil of the earth into the salt deposit is at first almost indiscernible as the water begins slowly to trickle small particles of clay down into the salt.

If we were able to observe this process, we would say that this first leaching is not significant, and, what is more, it is only in the very top of the layer of salt. However, if the process continues, as time progresses, the water erodes channels into the salt that allows for the infusion of larger and more contaminating materials. In time, the salt becomes useless, except to be thrown out and “be trampled underfoot by men.”

Can we not easily see that this is the same principle of contamination that occurs in the life of a believer in Christ? Our own corruption is at first almost imperceptible as some values of the world begin to filter into our lives. At the first, the pollutants are not so toxic, and when they are taken within the consideration of the whole scope of our lives, they do not affect any real change.

Nevertheless, as the leaching process continues, these things of the world become ever more significant and even may begin to erode channels into our lives through which can enter even more contaminants. However, the process is slow; it is gradual. If we are not careful, we will not even notice it.

            Despite the gradual effects, if we allow the contamination to continue, the words of Jesus will be applied to us, we will “no longer be good for anything, but to be thrown out and to be trampled by men.” 

To Be Valued More that Gold
Salt, whether we appreciate its true significance in our lives or not, was something that in many days and many parts of the world was often valued above gold. In the same manner, whether we realize it or not, followers of Jesus who keep their lives pure carry a value greater than many will appreciate.

However, we do well to learn to appreciate it. Jesus, through the integrity of his believers, is still working to purify and to preserve. Do we have ears to hear this very simple and plain lesson from Jesus?
 

Therefore, salt is good; but if even salt has become tasteless, with what will it be seasoned? It is useless either for the soil or for the manure pile; it is thrown out. He, who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Luke 14:34-35 (NAS) 

For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if the salt becomes unsalty, with what will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.

Mark 9:49-50 (NAS) 

You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how will it be made salty again? It is good for nothing anymore, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do men light a lamp, and put it under the peck-measure, but on the lampstand; and it gives light to all who are in the house.

Matthew 5:13-15 (NAS)

 

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