You are the Salt of the Earth
by Richard W. Greene
“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.” (Matthew 5:13, NASB)
Here we see Jesus using “salt” as a description of the effects of the kingdom life of a disciple on the world around him. This picture would have been greatly understood by His audience due to the importance of salt for survival and its use in the daily and religious life of the people in the region of the Middle East.
The context of this statement is that it immediately follows the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12), which describe the kingdom character of the disciple. Disciples of Jesus are those who are spiritually needy or “poor in spirit” and personally feel the weight of the sin and suffering around them, causing them to “mourn” over it. They are “gentle” or meek in demeanor before God and man and have a genuine desire for righteousness. In addition, disciples of Jesus practice mercy in dealing with others, are diligent to maintain integrity and purity of heart (affections) and are always striving for those things that make for peace or “shalom” (Luke 18:8). These core values produce a life that is the antithesis of the world in which we live, creating unique opportunities for Christ to be made known through us, but also for persecution against us to occur. In either case, the response of such a kingdom character is to rejoice (Matthew 5:10-12), to practice non-resistance in the face of personal evil attacks, to go the second mile (to do more than is expected), to freely and sacrificially give to all who ask of us (Matthew 5:38-41), and to be perfect in our love for all people, even as our heavenly Father is perfect in His love for all (Matthew 5:48).
Jesus presupposes two things with the salt metaphor: (1) the world is decaying (see Paul’s warning that evil will increase with the passage of time in 1 Timothy 4:1-3 and 2 Timothy chapters 3 and 4), and (2) only the kingdom lives of His disciples can and will effectively reverse the decaying condition of the world.
Matthew 5:1-2 indicates that Jesus was speaking primarily to His disciples in the Sermon on the Mount and not to the multitudes, whose fallen condition presupposes the need for His disciples to live in such a manner so as to influence and impact them in a transformational way, even as salt affects the context to which it is applied.
The salt metaphor is rich in application. It is said that salt, which is endlessly abundant in the world, has over 14,000 uses and is as necessary for survival as is water. The average American consumes 28,000 pounds of salt in their lifetime. We all know that salt heals, seasons, cleanses, and preserves. It was once as valuable as gold. Roman soldiers were paid in part with salt, giving us the word salary. The saying, “he isn’t worth his salt” was coined in the case of deficient service not only among slaves but also for soldiers. Salt was so important that it became a means of sealing covenants. It is said that God gave the kingdom to David with a covenant of salt, referring to the enduring nature of his reign (2 Chronicles 13:5). He made a similar covenant of salt with the priests (Numbers 18:19). Today, in the US, huge salt mines serve as storage facilities for all kinds of equipment, documents, and even vehicles, as the salt walls and floors maintain a perfect humidity and environment to prevent decay (an excellent picture of the effect disciples should have on the world around them). Human history can be traced through the history of salt, with civilization spreading largely along salt trading routes and following salt’s effect on global commerce and economies. Thus, Jesus’ point is that if His kingdom is to expand to those who are lost, the kingdom life of the disciple must be as influential and effectual as salt is to life itself.
In making this point, Jesus included a stern warning that His disciples must avoid losing their saltiness. To lose or diminish the kingdom distinctiveness of our lives is to become “tasteless” or useless regarding the concerns of the kingdom of God. How can we lose our saltiness? I see three ways a disciple of Jesus can lose his or her saltiness.
Salt loses its “saltiness” when it is mixed with other elements. So it is with the disciple. The things of the world relentlessly compete for our affections and attention and can deaden our passion for Jesus with their urgent demands, lusts, temptations, and distractions. Jesus said His disciples are in the world but not of the world (John 17:14). John admonishes us: “Do not love the world nor the things that are in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world” (1 John 2:15-16). To avoid worldliness, we must have a constant and acute awareness that this world is not our home. Abraham exemplified this: “By faith he [Abraham] lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for a city which has foundations whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:8-10). Though promised the land of Canaan, the only piece of it Abraham ever owned was a cave at Hebron, which became his tomb (Genesis 23). Abraham also refused to take any of the spoil from the war of the kings in Genesis 14, choosing instead to guard the integrity God’s testimony in his life, which was that all he possessed came from the Lord (Genesis 14:21-24). He maintained the “saltiness” – the distinctiveness – of this testimony by remaining “unstained” (or “unspotted”) by the world (James 1:27). If we are not diligent, the world will change our demeanor, our attitude, our language, the quality of our faith, and even our character. The effect of the world can be the loss of our saltiness, thus diminishing the power of our testimony and hindering the expansion of the kingdom of God.
The word “institutionalize” means to “incorporate into a structured and often highly formalized system.” Extreme examples of institutionalization would be those imprisoned or consigned to mental health facilities. To “be” institutionalized is to be contained within a rigid system and environment, and to be limited by the rules and culture of that environment. It is interesting to note that if someone becomes institutionalized, they gradually become less able to think and act independently. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day institutionalized the Law of Moses and the sacrificial worship system of the Jews, meaning they arranged the commandments in the Law into a rigid system of outward practices without the inward character and compassion from which the practices were designed to come. They demanded that everyone follow these outward practices without exception or deviation, or risk being cut off from the temple or synagogue. Thus, their faith was institutionalized within the constraints of the rabbinic code of the Law, and they were unable to recognize Jesus as the Messiah because they could not see beyond their own institutional boundaries. When our faith is practiced in a non-missional way, through the use of strict outward religious rules, or forms, or traditions, we are in danger of losing our saltiness. Jesus calls us to live as missionaries (those who are on mission) wherever we find ourselves. We must serve the poor, pray for the sick, visit those who are in prison, comfort those who mourn, and proclaim the gospel of the kingdom to those who are lost. As we commit ourselves to these kingdom acts of justice, along with prayer, praise, and obedience to the commands of Christ, we will maintain a high level of saltiness in our lives. The Pharisees were theologically closest to Jesus, but He condemned their lack of missional compassion: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, and dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23). Religious institutionalization happens when we practice our faith without missional purpose and engagement. The Pharisees lost sight of the command from Leviticus 2:13 that every sacrifice offered to God in worship was to be salted with salt. Religious institutionalization will often keep us from the mission, resulting in a loss of saltiness.
The third threat I see to living as the salt of the earth is compassion fatigue, something that every missionary faces. As we live missionally we encounter many people who have serious needs, or who have been traumatized and deeply hurt. According to the Free Dictionary by Farlex, “compassion fatigue is the physical, emotional, and spiritual result of chronic self-sacrifice and/or prolonged exposure to difficult situations that renders a person unable to love, nurture, care for, or empathize with another’s suffering” (https://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/compassion+fatigue). Compassion fatigue can also be the result of repeated demands or requests for help, for donations, or for services from individuals or charities. Often, as we strive to love and serve those around us, we can be rejected or used by them. Remember that salt stings when applied to an open wound. Our saltiness may expose sin in those we are seeking to reach, causing them to react harshly to us. We may feel they are ungrateful or not responding to our help in the way we want or expect them to respond. This can lead to compassion fatigue, including withdrawing from people and disengaging from missional living. The result will be a diminishing of our desire and efforts to love and serve others, especially if we have experienced repeated disappointment in those we have helped.
I have often tried, unsuccessfully I think, to imagine what Jesus saw and knew as He walked this earth and saw the condition of the people. We know that He saw they were “distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). We see His grief at the death of His friend Lazarus (John 11:35), His anger at the greed of those merchandising the sacrifices in the temple (John 2:13-16), and His frustration at the inability of the people to see His true identity as the Son of God (John 8:39-47). Surely, He must have been dismayed to see how far short we have fallen from that glory for which we were created (Romans 3:23), something that we cannot see or fully comprehend. Consider that if we can so easily see the depravity, evil, and decadence that is the true condition of the world, how much more did Jesus see it and grieve over it (Isaiah 53:3). Yet, He never lost His capacity for compassion. It says in John 13:1 that even at the moment of His betrayal by Judas Iscariot, “having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end” (literally, to the uttermost). While there is no easy cure for compassion fatigue, we can guard our hearts from getting hardened if we will remain humble, remembering that “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). We must, then, preserve our desire and ability to be truly compassionate even with those who misuse us. If we embrace the core values and character of the kingdom as described by Jesus in the Beatitudes, we will find ourselves avoiding or at least minimizing compassion fatigue and maintaining our saltiness.
What can we learn, then? Saltiness is a condition, a quality, an effect, not an action. It is not something we do, but something we are as we leave everything to follow Jesus. It is the fruit of the Cross in our lives. It is much like the perfume Mary sacrificially and worshipfully poured over the feet of Jesus, filling the whole house with its beautiful aroma (John 12:1-3). Paul speaks of this in 2 Corinthians 2:14-16: “But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life. And who is adequate for these things?”
What effect or influence do you have on others? Are they drawn to Christ through the essence of your life? Does your grace convict their cynicism and hardness? Does your joy heal their pain? Does your faith challenge their doubts? Does your meekness shame their pride and arrogance? Does your peace overcome their chaos? Does the language of your life offer them hope and peace, and renewal? It is true that the more radically we live as disciples of Jesus, the more others will be affected and touched by us in meaningful ways. May your life leave the sweet aroma of Jesus wherever you go!
Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®️, Copyright ©️ 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. www.Lockman.org
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