“Salt of the Earth”
“Ye are the salt of the earth.” (Matthew 5:13,14)
Salt. Sodium chloride. The compound found in seawater and sweat, searched out in mines and separated through sunshine. From ancient times, salt has been used to flavor food and, until refrigeration, to preserve it; bacteria cannot thrive in high concentrations of salt. Wars have been fought over it, but salt is also a symbol of hospitality. It is necessary for life. Without it, your nerves and muscles could not function, nor could your body maintain the proper balance of fluids. A sudden and extreme drop in sodium levels could kill you. You need salt to live.
But when Jesus calls his disciples “the salt of the earth,” what on earth does he mean? And why does he warn them about losing their saltiness? What is he getting at?
“Ye are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says. He says these words to his disciples near the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, right after finishing the Beatitudes. And this is important. Because the Beatitudes describe the life of the community “gathered by and around Jesus.” (Hauerwas) A community characterized by humility, by meekness and by mourning for sin, by hunger and thirst for righteousness, by mercy, by purity of heart, by peace-making. A community that, like its Master, suffers for righteousness’ sake, “despised and rejected of men.” But a community that shares also in its Master’s blessedness and joy: “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake,” Jesus says, “Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven” (Mt 5:11–12). My point is that it is precisely to this community of disciples that he says, “Ye are the salt of the earth.”
In other words, it is the community of the Beatitudes that is the salt of the earth. The disciples are the salt of the earth insofar as their lives answer to the description of the Beatitudes, insofar as they are gathered by and around Jesus.
But how are they “the salt of the earth”? Well, what does salt do? To the ancients, the answer was clear: salt seasons and preserves. It makes the unpalatable palatable, and keeps the perishable from perishing. Throughout most of human history, the only way to keep meat from spoiling was to salt it. Salt pork nourished sailors over the ocean blue and pioneers across “the fruited plain.” And salt preserves other foodstuffs, too. It’s a central ingredient in canning and pickling. And I have vivid memories of my father spreading rock salt over each layer of newly stacked bales in the haymow to keep the hay from molding.
When Jesus calls the disciples “the salt of the earth,” the emphasis seems to fall on this preserving power of salt. The community of disciples is meant to function as a sort of preservative for the whole human community. It is for this reason that they have been gathered by Jesus, and have begun a new life in association with him. The church exists, as the theologians say, “for the life of the world.”
Listen to how St Chromatius put it at the turn of the 5th century: He says, “The apostles are meant to season [the world] with the wisdom of the preaching of the gospel. They are thus made the salt of the earth because it is through them that we receive the words of wisdom and are transformed,” when we are “reborn by the water of baptism by faith in Christ…, and by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit [pass] from earthly things to a heavenly birth.” Chromatius continues,
When grains of salt are applied to meat they prevent rot, carry away bad smells, cleanse it of filth, and do not allow worms to be produced. So too, the heavenly grace and faith given by the apostles works in us in a like manner. It carries away the rot of carnal lusts, cleans out the filth of sins, eliminates the odor of evil lifestyles, and does not permit the worms of evil deeds to be produced.
The community of disciples has been salted by Christ, having experienced the transformation and healing that comes through him, and they are meant “to season the earth with the wisdom of the preaching of the gospel.” They are called, we are called, with St Paul, to proclaim “Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2)—not only with their lips, but in their whole way of life, transformed and made new in Christ Jesus. We were going bad until we were preserved by Christ.
If this is how the disciples are the salt of the earth, then what would it mean for “the salt to have lost its savour”? It could only mean that the community of disciples had become indistinguishable from other human communities, that the church had become indistinguishable from the world. For its savoriness lies in its distinctness, as the community gathered by and around Jesus, sharing in his blessedness and, here’s the rub, in his suffering. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells the disciples, “Ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world,” and he adds, “therefore the world hateth you” (Jn 15:19). The animosity directed toward the church can exert huge pressure to conform to the prevailing society. This is most clearly the case in situations of outright persecution. But there are also more subtle temptations to conformity, perhaps the most insidious being the suggestion that it’s just not “cool” to be Christian in any serious sense. In other words, our Lord’s warnings about the salt losing its savour carry much the same force as what he says through his Apostle: “Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom 12:2).
“Ye are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says. And again, “Ye are the light of the world.” Here it becomes particularly clear that, if the disciples are the light of the world, they are so only because they have been illuminated by Christ Jesus, the true light. For he says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12). If Christ is “the Sun of Righteousness” (Mal 4:2), then the disciples are like the moon, reflecting his light to a darkened world.
“The Beatitudes,” says Pope Benedict XVI, “display the mystery of Christ, and they call us into communion with him.” It is as we are drawn into communion with Christ crucified and are transformed in the power of his resurrection, that we are made salt and light.
If we are the salt of the earth, it is only because we have first been salted, seasoned and preserved, by wisdom of Christ, by the message of the Cross. If we are the light of the world, it is only because we have first been enlightened by the Lord, who is our light and our salvation. Therefore, let us heed the psalmist’s exhortation and “Look upon him and be radiant” (Ps 34:5). Let us hear his words, and do whatsoever he tells us. In this way, he will set us free from “the bondage of our sins,” and give us “the liberty of that abundant life” which has been manifested to us in our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
 Chromatius of Aquileia, quoted in Matthew: Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators (The Church’s Bible).