Soul Seeds: Salt and Light
“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.
“You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.
“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven.” (Matthew 6:13-16)
I could not believe my ears. They were actually arguing about whether salt could be chemically changed into something less salty! As if that were even important enough to justify a debate. I walked out of that class shaking my head.
Now, of course the salt used in Jesus’ day wasn’t like ours. What you and I buy in the stores is more or less artificially produced in a highly purified form of 99.99% sodium chloride. The salt used in the first century AD was not so pure, usually. It was mined from the earth, so it was essentially dirt or soft rock. It was often slightly colored gray or brown, and when broken up for food use, faintly yellow. It contained all sorts of other minerals. Perhaps we could debate whether it was any healthier than what we use today, but that also would be missing the point.
All that matters is this: If salt from a mine was not salty, what was it? Dirt. It was the same stuff as the ground on which we walk. So if salt didn’t do what salt was intended to do, if it didn’t serve the purpose for which folks worked hard to dig it out of the ground, then why bother keeping it separate from the ground? It’s just dirt.
What is it salt does, making it worth all the trouble to dig? Two things are obvious: taste and preservation. In a world where spices were a luxury, the one thing to prevent food from being bland was salt. We could easily get bogged down in yet another debate over whether the desire for salted food is learned or natural, but that’s also missing the point. Jesus simply used an illustration even poor folks would recognize — they liked some food with salt. Some of what they had to eat was frankly unpalatable without it.
In this world, were it not for people who love the Lord, and earnestly desire to please Him, humanity would be downright unpalatable to God. Ask the generation of Jonah how many of those folks cared at all what Jehovah thought of their lives. They all ended up floating carcasses. What holds back another flood of destruction is God’s promise and His command humans live in civility. Human civilizations may well fail to understand that command, but we who are spiritual have no excuse. As we seek today to serve the Father, we are often what holds back another flood of destruction — though He promised it would not be literal water the next time.
Salt serves another, perhaps more important purpose: preservation. In a time when refrigeration meant hauling stuff up into the highest mountains above the snow line, salt was literally a life saver. Until rather recent human history, meat was for many a delicacy, expensive and not served at every meal. When meat could be had, it was often not in convenient serving sizes. One would purchase a leg of some animal, take it home and attempt to preserve it from rot and decay until it was all eaten. The easiest way was to salt it down. Indeed, given so very much of what meat was eaten then was salted, it may account for why we all prefer it that way, even today.
Depending on whom you ask, it is plausible to assert much of what is today called “Western Civilization” was the result of some sort of Christianity. When the Apostles first began spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it was quite new. Rome officially persecuted Christians off and on for the next 300 years after the Ascension. Eventually, politics shifted and claiming Christ became officially tolerated, then officially supported. While it thus suffered some corruption by its mixture with politics, it nonetheless remained a positive force for change in the world, particularly in culture. As the old Christian Rome fell to the pagan Germanic tribes, Christianity seemed to disappear for awhile. Yet, a short time later it became the new religion of one very powerful Germanic king, who then conquered and exported his new faith among his kindred. Thus, from the ashes of a Europe overrun by German hordes, the light of partial civilization dawned on them, as well.
While noting sadly the strong element of politics and paganism mixed in to this Medieval Christian religion, it was the same Jesus and His teachings which helped tame the savage hordes, however poorly His teachings might have been understood. It was a dramatic change. Since then, Christianity has often been a symbol of less change, and a conservation of tradition. This is because most of that tradition reflects an assumption of biblical virtue, one mixed with something purely cultural at times. While we might disagree about what is and is not moral — i.e., Christlike — that there is a morality easily recognized by all is quite an achievement in itself. Bring Christianity to any culture, and there will be demands for change. Try to undo those changes later and Christians, such as they are, will likely protest. Silence their voices, remove their witness, and the culture will rot and become worse.
While there is something we might call a distinctive Christian culture, most generations have falsely assumed their own brand of sub-culture is the most Christian of all. They project their own biases back onto Scripture. Christian culture is essentially tribal, living as an extended household, or several extended households within a clan or tribal village. Instead of human DNA, it’s about spiritual DNA, as it were. It’s all about persons and family, and any other organizational framework is a mistake. Sadly, we find it much easier to assume the trappings of our secular cultural surroundings as something we simply cannot change. If we do not change, we cannot really have a witness to our world.
And thus we are brought back to the point of this parable: We are to be a light to the people around us. We as believers are the source of God’s revelation to our world. It is the nature of light to bring into stark clarity where and what everything is. Simply grappling with everyday things from an eternal standpoint is itself revealing. That we care and seek to promote what really and truly matters to God is our first and best sermon to all we touch. It is inevitable that some things offered us must be rejected, because Our God is Holy, and expects the same of us. That we may also get a chance to explain the nature of our objections is all we can hope for. Where it goes from there is God’s business.
With the images of both salt and light, there is an implied warning. If we fail to be what salt ought to be, if we fail to do what light by its nature does, we dishonor Him Who called us salt and light. Jesus’ half-brother James would say, “A faith which is hidden is no faith at all.” Even when folks around us don’t know what to label it, there must be an obvious difference between our presence and our absence. If our presence makes no significant difference, then why do we exist? Why does He mine us from the ground of common humanity; why does He set our hearts on fire?
We must make a difference. It is our nature.