"The Wordsmith's Forge" is the name of my monthly column for the church newsletter. Here is March's column.
In his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:13), Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.” The obvious meaning of that passage is that the followers of Christ make the whole world better; if all his followers were to be taken away, the world would be a pretty ugly scene.
That said, I was always intrigued by the idea that salt could lose its saltiness. I mean, the salt that I buy at the store is pure sodium chloride (with maybe a bit of iodine added). It is chemically pure, and doesn’t change into something else over time. When I first read this passage, I couldn’t figure out what Jesus was describing. A wee history lesson is in order, then.
There are two basic sources of salt. Sea salt is made by evaporating
seawater. In the First Century, salt was made both from both the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean. “Salt of the earth,” however, was salt dug from salt deposits. There are mines in the Austrian Alps that have been worked for salt for thousands of years (which is how Salzburg got its name). And in the Middle East, there are large salt deposits in the Dead Sea valley where salt could be dug up and sold.
Earth salt (in its natural form) is not as clean as sea salt. There is a proportion of clay and whatnot in it, some more, some less. In ancient times, “brown salt” was cheaper than “white salt” – which is why thrifty housewives would buy it. So imagine yourself the buyer of a large basket of brown salt. As you use it in cooking, your hand reaches in and selects the whitest patches in the basket – this being the cleanest, saltiest stuff. As you work your way toward the bottom of the basket, you end up with mostly dirt. It doesn’t taste very salty; it won’t keep food from spoiling. It’s just dirt. You throw it on the path to the kitchen door.
All of which adds an additional layer of warning to what Christ said. We may be “a chosen people,” but God keeps dipping into us, selecting what to keep and what to throw out. In the end, there may be many who said to him, “Lord, lord,” but who really weren’t interested in his kingdom. Only those who keep their saltiness – those who remain faithful – are of value to the work of God. And may that describe all of us.