There is a story that is told in different variations around the world. It has even been immortalized by Shakespeare in the play King Lear. But in it’s simplest form, the story begins when a king asked his daughter how much she loved him. She said she loved him as much as she loved salt, whereupon in a rage the king expelled her from his palace. But before leaving she arranged for all of the salt to be left out of the king’s food. Only then did he realise that how much being loved like salt meant.
Now I would immediately see that as a compliment. I love salt. Give me a choice between salty foods and sweet and I will pick salty almost every time. But even for people with less salty palates know how much of a difference salt can make in their food. Even a pinch leaves it’s mark.
In Jesus day, salt was extremely valuable. Not only does salt add flavor to food, it also preserved certain foods such as meat or fish from spoiling, which was essential before the invention of refrigeration. Salt also helps to purify or cleanse meats and is useful in healing or cleansing certain ailments. All of these uses were commonly known in first century Palestine. Indeed, such uses were likely the cause for the symbolic use of salt in offerings and sacrifice, as well as in sealing covenants in Israel
Let’s say that you and I were going to make a deal with each other. Now, there was no written contract, but instead you would take some salt from your house and I would take some salt from my house. Then we would throw salt across each other’s shoulder. It was called the covenant of salt. Salt was symbolic of the preservation of a contract.
Because of its usefulness, salt was prized and even used as currency. Special salt rations given to early Roman soldiers were known as “salarium argentum,” the forerunner of the English word “salary.” It seems that one can write a whole history of the world just by tracing what has happened with salt. In fact, Mark Kulansky did so in his book “Salt: A World History.”
And so it matters that Jesus says to those who were listening then and to those who listen still: “You are the salt of the earth.” In other words, you are of great value.
Jesus isn’t saying, “You should be the salt of the earth and light of the world.” Or, “You have to be,…” let alone “You better be,….” Rather, he is saying, you are. As in already are. Even if you don’t know it. Even if you once knew it and forgot. Even if you have a hard time believing it.
Jesus declares what his followers are here, and it doesn’t matter whether they know it, believe it, or feel it. They are salt whether they feel flavorful or not. They are light regardless of whether they feel particularly shiny.
I want to take a moment to talk about children here. Psychologists suggest that for every negative message elementary-aged children hear about themselves, they need to hear ten positive ones to restore their sense of self-esteem to where it had been previously. And it doesn’t seem like we grow out of that need.
Children, to put it another way, become what they are named. Call a child bad long enough, and he or she will believe you and act bad. Call a child (or anyone) worthless or unlovable or shameful, and eventually he or she or we will live into the name we’ve been assigned. In the same way, call us good or useful, dependable, helpful, or worthwhile, and we will grow into that identity and behavior as well.
And so Jesus tells us that we are salt of the earth. And light of the world. That is who we are. It is up to us to live into those names.
After all, salt does a lot. And if you are salt, just think of all the varied ways the gift you are and the gifts you offer impact the world. You can help to preserve others and the land around you. You can help to heal and to make covenants. You are what makes the best times better. Just by being you.
Take a minute and think about your actions over the last few weeks. Think about the variety of ways God has used you to be salt and light. Did you offer words of encouragement to someone who needed it? Did you volunteer? Visit the sick? Feed the hungry? Did you speak out against injustice? Did you stand up for the alienated and the marginalized? You have added salt to the world. You have been a light on a hill.
Because, so far as I can tell, in spite of Jesus’ assertion, salt never actually loses its taste. It’s a stable element and cannot “go bad.” No, the only way salt can lose its saltiness is when it is never used at all. Think about it. It doesn’t matter how much salt you have sitting on the shelf if you forgot to add it to the soup. Salt is meant to be used, whether it is in soup or on icy roads. It does no good at all stored away.
In the same way, a light is only useless if you never see it. If you hide it under something. Light is not meant to be stored up, but rather, to be shared with all who need its guidance and warmth.
We are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. That means we are called to demonstrate the difference God’s grace makes in real human life on a daily basis. Our first lesson from Isaiah 58:6-7 makes it clear how we are to use our salt. What our God desires of us is “to loose the bonds of injustice, … to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke … to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them.” When we live our lives in this way, demonstrating the difference God’s grace makes in real human life on a daily basis, we are being the salt of the earth. We are shining a light on a hill.
Matthew even repeats what we are to do in his gospel: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” That is what we are called to do. That is who we are told to be.
You are salt. You are light. It is up to you to use your salt and our light “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Because salt cannot help being salty. Light cannot help but shine. They are set apart, unique, endowed with a clear and certain purpose and identity. You too have a clear purpose as a follower of Christ.
Jesus says these words to you today. You are of great value. Who and what you are and all that you give to the world makes the world a better, richer place. All you have to do is get out of the shaker, out of the bag, off the shelf and do what you were made to do.
“You are the salt of the earth.” Believe it.