“Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men” (Matthew 5:13).
Everyone knows sodium chloride when they taste it.
As far as we can tell, salt was the first flavor additive people used; it also served as the means by which many foods were preserved. Salt plays a critical function for all living creatures: it regulates the water content of the body, and the sodium ion is the means by which electrical signals communicate through the nervous system. It is not found naturally in many foods; it must be added to the diet, and our tongues appreciate the flavor. It is therefore unsurprising to see how important and valuable salt has been for humanity throughout its existence; before modern processing methods, when edible salt was more challenging to find and use, it was highly prized. One word we use to describe someone’s wages, “salary,” comes from the Latin salarium, referring to the money paid to the Roman soldiers so they could purchase salt.
Salt was therefore known as an important preservative and seasoning in the ancient world, considered quite precious and valuable, and prized for its distinctiveness. But not all salt is made equal: one has to have almost pure sodium chloride for what we call “table salt,” and most naturally occurring salt deposits contain other elements as well. To this day the majority of the salt mined and processed is not for human or animal consumption but for industrial processes and for de-icing streets and sidewalks in colder climates.
Jesus understands these things, and He also knows that His audience understands these things. Having declared “the Beatitudes” in His “Sermon on the Mount” (cf. Matthew 5:1-12), He begins a series of metaphors describing how the disciples should conduct themselves among others and to what effect (Matthew 5:13-16). The first image used involves salt and its distinctiveness (Matthew 5:13): Jesus declares that His disciples are the “salt of the earth,” and then wonders what will happen if the salt loses its taste. At that point, its essential properties no longer able to be restored, its only value is to be thrown underfoot in order to be trodden upon by men.
Jesus begins with this declarative statement: “ye are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). There is no doubt or question about it. While Jesus might have the preservative function of salt in mind, suggesting that just as salt preserves food, His disciples are the reason the world is preserved, His expansion on the theme shows how He has the distinctive taste of salt in mind. The disciples are the “salt of the earth” in terms of being that distinctive flavor which is immediately recognizable when perceived. The distinctive flavor of salt is both unique in itself and uniquely satisfying to the palate. Its particular value is in its distinctiveness and difference, and that value exists on account of its purity.
While the disciples are declared to be the “salt of the earth” without any expression of doubt, Jesus goes on to ask what will happen if the salt loses its flavor. Can the saltiness be restored? He declares how it is now useless for food and preserving life and can only be used on the ground, just as we do today in order to keep the roads and sidewalks ice-free. Jesus therefore opens up the possibility that the “salt” may not maintain its “flavor” and will thus be rendered almost useless. What we call “table salt” loses its distinctiveness when it is no longer almost pure sodium chloride and other elements are introduced; when it is impure, it cannot be used for food preparation, and is only good for industrial or street use.
Thus we have the key to understanding Jesus’ imagery. Jesus’ disciples are called, justified, and sanctified, cleansed and made pure through faith (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:11, Ephesians 5:25-27, Titus 3:4-6). Jesus’ disciples are therefore distinctive, bearing the name of the Lord, seeking to serve Him in all they think, feel, say, and do, representing the new creation order even in the midst of the old (cf. Romans 8:29, 2 Corinthians 5:16-19, Colossians 3:17). Such purity, holiness, humility, love, and service is distinctive: it is immediately recognizable when perceived, utterly unique, and ultimately most satisfying both for the one engaged in the practice and those who see and are blessed by it. Such holy and righteous thinking, feeling, and action will draw people toward Jesus the Source of all life, holiness, and righteousness, to the praise of God the Father (cf. Matthew 5:16). When Jesus’ disciples conform to the image of Jesus and present the image of Jesus to their fellow man, their distinctiveness is evident and most satisfying. Perhaps not everyone will agree with Christianity and the Christian lifestyle, but when it is faithfully practiced, it at least garners respect.
But what happens if people profess to believe in Jesus but do not advance in righteousness, holiness, humility, love, and service? Such a “disciple” looks no different from anyone else in the world; there is nothing distinctive about their thinking, feelings, and actions. When there is nothing distinctive about them, of what value do they serve for the Lord’s purposes? Not much: these are the people who bring reproach upon the name of Jesus, besmirching His good name with their worldliness, giving cause for unbelievers to blaspheme. Such people are the “salt” which has lost its flavor; they are thus “thrown out,” to be “trampled upon” like the rest of the world. Impure salt cannot nourish, sustain, strengthen, or provide a distinct flavor; such is only possible with pure salt.
Jesus’ words, therefore, provide assurance and a warning. We cannot be distinctive in holiness or righteousness by ourselves and by our own standing; we must humbly submit in trusting faith before God the Father through Jesus the Son to receive the cleansing that comes through Jesus’ sacrifice in order to begin walking down the path of holiness and righteousness. When we turn to God and begin serving the Lord Jesus we become the “salt of the earth.” But we can only remain beneficial if we remain distinctive, and we can only remain distinctive by maintaining purity. We must seek after pure Christianity through humble service to God, seeking to align our will to His in every way. If we do not maintain that purity, but turn and follow after the lusts of the world, the assumptions and ideologies of the world, or other vain worldly pursuits, then there remains nothing distinctive about us. If there is nothing distinctive about us, we end up suffering the same fate as all of the salt that has always remained impure!
Pursuing justice, righteousness, and holiness is not optional; it is the means by which we maintain our distinctiveness in a world saturated with impurity and vice. Let us remain the distinctive salt of the world, seeking after purity, praising the name of the Lord and being the reason for others to praise the Lord as well!
Ethan R. Longhenry