To read the texts click on the texts: Isa 58:7-10; 1 Cor 2:1-5; Mt 5:13-16
Besides making foods delicious, it is believed that there are more than 14,000 uses of salt. Many of these uses were for simple things around the home before the advent of modern chemicals and cleaners. However, many uses are still valid today and a lot cheaper than using more sophisticated products.
What could Jesus have meant when he used the metaphor of salt and invited his disciples to be the salt of the earth? It must first be noted that this identification is unparalleled in contemporary literature and that salt is never identified with people anywhere in the Old Testament. At the time of Jesus, salt was used as a preservative, in sacrifices, in food to add taste and to purify. Jesus does not refer to any specific function of salt and so some have interpreted this metaphor as a call to the disciples to be preservatives of all that is good and not allow it to decay, to be an example of purity since offerings were offered with salt and also to add flavour or taste to the world and make it palatable for others or in other words to give meaning to life.
This last use is brought out well in a story that is told of a merchant who had several daughters. One day he asked them: “How much do you love me?” They all said various poetic and abstract things, but the youngest replied: “I love you like salt loves food.” This seemingly silly and disrespectful answer angered the merchant who expelled her from the house to wander as a beggar. In time the young woman became married to a very wealthy and influential man. When many years had passed it happened that her father was invited to her house. She directed the cook to prepare all the food without salt. As they were eating the merchant began to weep violently. “I had a daughter who told me she loved me as salt loves food. Now I realize that she loved me most of all!” Those who suffer from high blood pressure and are advised by doctors to avoid salt in their food will know how the merchant will have felt.
However, from the context and the following sayings about salt losing its saltiness, it seems that Jesus is saying something more fundamental than that. Jesus, in using the salt-metaphor to describe his followers, is suggesting that just as salt has a certain intrinsic property--its saltiness--without which it would be of no value, Christians also have certain intrinsic characteristics that are definitive, and without which they would cease to be “Christian.”
Anyone who is asked what salt tastes like will almost certainly say, “Salty.” There seems to be no other way to describe it. The saltiness of salt is its definitive property. Although it has other properties--white, granular--these are not definitive. Saltiness, on the other hand, is so very definitive of salt that we would have trouble even imagining “unsalty salt”. Salt without its definitive property would be of no value. Salt is defined by, and valued for, its saltiness. Christians, as salt must be salty or Christians as Christians must be Christian and the only example that we need to explain what this means is the person of Jesus Christ. There must be something about us as Christians, something shared by all believers and followers of Jesus, which is definitive. There must be something that marks us, sets us apart not in the sense of being parochial or exclusive, but in the sense of being an example to others so that others will want to know what makes us tick. A Christian without these special characteristics would simply not be “Christian.” The challenge is not to become what we are not already, but to show forth what we are, what God has already made us. This is not something that we can muster up, not something that comes with training, with effort, with learning, with erudition (though these are all helpful), but something that is a natural concomitant of what we have received: our new being in Christ. We will not need to proclaim in words our saltiness but it will have to be experienced by others, just as no one tells the chef after a good meal that there was great salt used in the meal. Salt brings out the flavour and the food gets noticed.
Jesus also challenges his disciples to be “the light of the world”. This metaphor seems to be used here as an expression of the saving presence of God. Disciples of Jesus must radiate through their loving and healing actions this saving presence. This is further explained by the two sayings on the city on the hill top which is visible to all and the lamp on the lamp stand. Just as these cannot be hidden from view, so also the disciples must be visible. They must not try to hide the light which God has lit in their lives. The martyred German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, criticizing the Church for cowering under Nazism, once wrote, “Flight into the invisible is a denial of the call. A community of Jesus which seeks to hide itself has ceased to follow him.” This visibility according to Isaiah is not shown in private acts of devotion like fasting, but through an integration of personal devotion and social action. His action is expressed in the tangible manner of sharing bread with the hungry; sheltering the homeless poor and clothing the naked. This kind of a “doer” of good deeds is according to the psalmist the one who is a light in the darkness.
The crucified Christ is according to Paul, the best example of this light. To be a light is to follow this God, struggling to bring about social justice in our society, to safeguard human rights and to work for peace and reconciliation. Our witness must consist of both deeds and words that point to God the Father and bring glory to him. What a privilege we have to be the agents of evoking praise to our Father in heaven!