Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Salt is so common in our culture that Jesus’ words to the crowd in this morning’s Gospel “you are the salt of the earth” don’t initially make as much sense to us as they would have to the original audience. We have so much salt that not only do we put too much of it in our food, but when the weather gets bad we start throwing it on streets and sidewalks. If we’re not putting it in our bodies, we’re getting the stuff on our cars and shoes and the bottoms of our overcoats. Salt is ubiquitous.

Maybe our superabundance of salt is why we’ve taken that old expression from the Gospel “salt of the earth” to mean precisely the opposite of what it actually means. When we say somebody is “salt of the earth” we usually mean that he is an ordinary fellow: simple and honest and unassuming. In reality, what Jesus meant by “salt of the earth” was quite different.

You see, in ancient times, salt was a relatively valuable commodity, even in places very different from and unconnected to the Ancient Near East and the Roman Empire, hence the Mayan fresco on your bulletin cover page this morning. You wouldn’t think about spreading it on roads, and unless you were particularly well off, you’d go broke before you had had enough salt to cause health problems. Certainly salt wasn’t especially rare, but neither was it inexpensive enough to allow an ordinary person to keep a salt shaker on his table, much less buy a frozen dinner containing 300% of his recommended daily sodium intake.

Salt wasn’t as common then as it is today, but it was likely a great deal more important. For one thing, we do need some salt to live, and sodium deficiency was probably a greater problem in the ancient world than was its opposite. What’s more, artificial refrigeration wouldn’t come for about 1800 years, so unless you lived in a cold climate, you’d preserve meat and fish with a hefty amount of salt. So important was salt, that Roman soldiers had at one time been paid with it, later being given a stipend to buy it, called a “salarium”, which comes from the Latin for salt and which later becomes the English word “salary”. So, in the ancient world the aphorism “time is money” would not have been as accurate as something like “salt is money”.

So, when Jesus says “you are the salt of the earth” he’s not suggesting that his disciples are defined by simplicity and a lack of pretension. Rather, he’s saying that there is something remarkably valuable about them, and not just valuable. Precious metals and rare spices and even glass were extremely valuable in ancient Rome, but they were luxuries. You didn’t really need them, and to have them served mainly to impress one’s peers. Salt was valuable, but it was also necessary. Everyone needed a little, and a little could make life so much better.

If a Christian is the salt of the earth, then, it means that what we are has the potential to bring a valuable and necessary commodity into the world. We who know Christ can season the situations in which we find ourselves with the salt of the virtues, and a little bit goes a long way. A little temperance here, a dash of charity, a few teaspoons of patience…

But then we get to that puzzling question which follows Jesus’ declaration that we are the salt of the earth: “but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored?” Now Jesus wasn’t a chemist, nor am I, but I think I remember enough from my junior year of high school to say with some certainty that salt cannot easily lose its saltness. (I’m sure some of you are more well up on your chemistry, so please correct me if I’m getting something wrong.) Sodium chloride is what we call a stable ionic compound, its atoms held together by electrostatic attractions formed when the sodium loses one of its electrons to the chlorine, creating a positively charged sodium and a negatively charged chlorine. These two atoms are held together by electrical forces which are very strong and thus difficult to break.

Though Jesus wouldn’t have known anything about chemistry, I suspect he knew that salt couldn’t lose its saltness through simple observation. He wouldn’t have ever seen salt go stale, because it didn’t happen. Now, some of the commentaries I’ve read this week did a lot of exegetical handwaving to explain how salt might be capable of losing its saltiness, due to impurities, but I think this misses the point, and I for one am not troubled about having a savior who didn’t know sodium chloride from potassium lactate. That said, I suspect Jesus had a hunch that salt was necessarily salty. Why then this apparent warning? Perhaps (and this is just a hunch) the point is precisely that the idea of salt losing its saltness is silly. It’s just as silly as that other image in this morning’s Gospel: hiding a candle under a bushel basket- which I imagine would either snuff the candle or cause a fire hazard, but in all events, nobody would have reason to do it. You’d just blow the candle out and light it later when you needed it.

Perhaps the point is that if we’re salt and light, we cannot be otherwise. We can convince ourselves that we’re not salt, but we still are. We can refuse to use that which is in us to season our encounters with others, but it’s still there. We who have been baptized cannot be unbaptized. We can ignore our status as children of God; we can try to run away from it, but our adoption as God’s children, our existence as salt and light, is objective and irrevocable.

So, to all who are baptized, you are salt and light. You can’t get away from it, so you might as well commit yourselves to figuring out what bland, perishable thing in this world could use a little seasoning and a little saving. You might as well commit yourselves to figuring out what dark corner of this world could use a little light. That is what we’re here for, but more importantly, that’s what we are. We might as well embrace what we are: salt and light.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.