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Sunday 9 February 2020

Salt of the earth and salt for the Spirit

Matthew 5:13-20

 

By John Coutts

Poet in Residence, The Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum; Salvation Army Envoy

Context: an all age congregation in the United Kingdom - the concluding prayer-poem may be read by a reader or the listeners

Aim: to expound one of our Lord’s familiar sayings in a modern context

Have you been checking your salt intake recently? It seems that too many of us are consuming too much. Overdosing on salt can seriously damage your health.

This thought may seem an odd way to introduce our text for this morning: Matthew, chapter 5, verse 13. Speaking to his disciples Jesus says ‘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 underfoot.’

‘The salt of the earth’ is one of our Lord’s simple sayings that has become proverbial. Here’s an example: it’s used as the title of a song by The Rolling Stones:

‘Let’s drink to the hard-working people,
Let’s drink to the lowly of birth,
Raise your glass to the good and the evil.
Let’s drink to the salt of the earth.’

Hard working, humble people are ‘the salt of the earth.’ That’s a valid thought, but not quite what our Lord has in mind. He chooses a familiar idea to convey a challenging truth, telling his followers that they are to be salt of the earth. Their message and witness is as essential to the world as salt is to food.

For our Lord’s listeners, the problem was too little salt, which, like too much, is bad for your health. Salt could be scarce and expensive. They couldn’t pop into a convenience store and stock up with ready meals sealed in plastic. They bought their foodstuffs in the market – and one essential was salt, which didn’t flow from an easy-to pour container. It was far more likely to come in lumps.

Much Palestinian salt came from the Dead Sea by evaporation, and the result was a mixture of pure salt and a mineral called ‘carnallite.’ You can order ‘Carnallite Salt from the Dead Sea’ through the internet. But it’s for external use only, so please don’t swallow it. Pure salt – uncontaminated sodium chloride – cannot ‘lose its savour.’ But if that lump of impure salt was left out in the rain, some of the sodium chloride would dissolve and the result – ‘salt that that had lost its savour’ – could ruin your dinner. We can imagine listeners’ heads nodding as they heard Jesus speak. It had probably happened to them.

And so: Our Lord’s use of the salt symbol differs from the proverbial meaning, as expressed by the Rolling Stones. For Jesus, it’s his followers who are to be salt of the earth – giving others an enticing flavour of the Kingdom of God. And his simple comparison comes with a spiritual health warning. Those who are called to be ‘salt‘ can ‘lose their savour.’ Christian history has plenty of examples – of people, churches and religious movements – who failed to live up to the ideals that they stood for. And those sad examples could include ... us.

But with that warning, comes a wonderful promise: the faith of Christ is underwritten by the eternal God. Goodness and mercy are not accidental spin-offs from the process of evolution – they are hard-wired into God’s very nature. And so, if we followers of Jesus have ‘lost our savour’, by God’s grace we can get it back. Let’s listen to/join in a simple prayer-poem that tries to express that tremendous truth:

[Reader or congregation:]

‘“The salt of the earth” you can call them,
And sometimes they’re thin on the ground:
The people who make our lives tasty,
And keep the poor world spinning round.

‘They don’t try to trash what you’re doing
Or kick a poor devil who’s down.
They get on with the job, not expecting
A medal, a cheque or a crown.’

[Preacher:]

So far so good. Let’s follow our Lord’s teaching a little further.

[Preacher, with reader or congregation:]

‘Dear God, you bring moons into orbit
And millions of planets to birth;
But love that is Lord of creation
Calls us to be “salt of the earth”.

‘So help us, dear Lord, to be salty,
And set our wrong attitudes right
As we flavour the world with good humour
And kindness and hope and delight,

‘With our sins well and truly forgiven
And concern for our neighbour in need
Good words of the gospel to guide us
And our Saviour to love and to lead.’

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