Salt of the Earth

Isaiah 58:7-10; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; Matthew 5:13-16

Salt is one of those things that once was good, but now is bad. We are warned to reduce our intake of salt, if we are to avoid high blood pressure and the risk of a heart attack or stroke.But in the time of Jesus, salt was a very precious mineral. Before the invention of fridges it was the means by which food could be preserved. The Romans paid soldiers and officials in salt. From it we derive the word 'salary'. Anyone who was 'true to his salt' was faithful to his employers. The term  ‘salt of the earth’ that Jesus uses has passed into common parlance, as a compliment to describe a chap who is good in a natural, ordinary way, soemone who we might call in Norfolk, ‘a good old boy.’   

In the time of Jesus, salt was used with fuel. The young people would gather dung and make it into patties to dry in the sun. Salt would be added to them, and they would be placed on a slab of salt stone in the oven. The salt acted as a catalyst that made the dung burn. After repeated heating, it lost its salty properties. St Luke says it was not fit for the soil or the manure heap, St Matthew says it was fit for nothing other than as a stone to fill  a hole in the road.

Jesus commends his disciples as ‘the salt of the earth’, people whose goodness will have effects. They will fire up other people, and be a force for good.  But they must not lose their saltiness the qualities of a good Christian. These qualities are laid out in the Beatitudes, which immediately precede this passage. The blessed are those who know their need of God, who are peacemakers, who are gentle and merciful, they are the pure and the righteous, and those who endure persecution for the sake of Christ.

Isaiah also identifies the virtues of the blessed:  they share what they have and provide for those in need; they are those who treat others fairly and with justice. The light of their goodness will shine brightly and stand out. Isaiah was writing after the exile to Babylon and the restoration of the temple. The religious fervour of the Israelites had gone off the boil. They complained that their fasts were to no purpose, God took no notice of what they were doing for him. God had replied that he did not want an odd day’s fasting, what he wanted was the behaviour that Isaiah extols. They missed the point.

Corinth, the destination of two of Paul’s letters was a rich and decadent city, where there were all sorts of enticements to lead Christians astray. The Greeks loved to argue and debate about ideas old and new. St Paul reminded the Christians there that he had not brought them to Christ by clever argument; if he had then someone with a cleverer argument could have come after him and eclipsed his teaching.  Paul preached Christ crucified, he let the cross speak for itself as the supreme indication of God’s love. He relied on the power of the spirit rather than his own limited human capabilities. All pulpits should have a crucifix above them, a reminder that the preacher not there to preach about himself but the crucified and risen Lord.

Jesus calls his disciples the light of the world.  As present-day disciples we share that title. What an honour that is because it is the title of Christ himself. What an honour, but also what a responsibility. Our light must shine brightly and be undimmed by sin. Just as the lights of a city bid welcome to  a weary traveler in the night, so that light must shine from us so that it may attract others to appreciate the reason for our goodness, the love of God from whom all blessings flow.

That light must not shine for our own glory, but to give glory to God. We are not to draw attention to our good works. Jesus has harsh words for those who parade their piety. They draw the glory to themselves and it is not directed to God. No, we should be naturally inclined to good works. We should be people of integrity, as Isaiah says, whose faith and lives are intrinsically bound up together, and whose reputation precedes us.  

The most popular flavour of crisps is now cheese and onion. For years it was ready salted. Salt may be out of favour, but Christians  must remain ready salted, and never tire of doing good works for love of Christ. That must never go out of fashion.