Sunday, November 12, 2017

On the Mount (4)

“Until about 100 years ago,” says author Mark Kurlansky, “salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history.” Not so much today. The modern Western diet includes an average of 10 grams of sodium chloride a day, mostly from processed food, and we are frequently urged to cut back on our intake.

Salt is cheap, and it’s everywhere.

Because of this, our own eating habits are probably not the best place to start meditating on the meaning of the salt metaphor from the Sermon on the Mount.

When the Lord Jesus declared:
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet,”
it is highly unlikely his audience had any experience at the drive-through window.

They did, however, have revelation to work with — not to mention their own cultural baggage — so let’s try to put ourselves in their shoes.

The Old Testament and Salt

Our modern Old Testament is comprised of 39 books. The Jews of the first century had only 22, but the material is essentially the same, just arranged differently.

Salt has the following Old Testament associations:
(There’s one more to come, but let’s save it for the big finish.)

The Cultural Baggage

I assume the Jews in the Lord’s audience were familiar with written revelation and made most of these associations. But even if they had not been, their own culture’s preoccupation with salt would make the Lord’s analogy at least comprehensible.

Salt relieves blandness and intensifies desirable flavors while suppressing undesirable ones, as this study suggests. (A relationship with God does much the same when lived out consistently, giving purpose rather than ennui or nihilism, muting the bitterness of hard times and increasing the joy of good ones.)

But salt is also essential for animal life. Human beings crave it not just because it makes food taste better but because it is a basic part of our biology. Ancient cities were deliberately located near to sources of water … and salt. Salt is the best known food preservative going back thousands of years. Roman legions were quite literally “worth their salt”; at times they were paid in it.

In short, it would be hard to be a Jew (or Gentile) in the first century without associating salt with exactly the same qualities as did Job, Moses, David and Ezekiel in their own particular eras.

The Lord’s metaphor works on two levels: nationally and individually.

National Salt

Firstly, the nation of Israel was God’s original “salt of the earth”. As salt meets our biological needs, the testimony of Jehovah could not help but meet the physical and spiritual needs of all men. That testimony was always intended to be shared, whether explicitly or by example. God said of Abraham, “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him,” and throughout the Old Testament we find Gentiles like Ruth, Rahab, Zipporah and the Ninevites to whom Jonah was sent benefiting from their association with the people of God.

When the Queen of Sheba declared:
“Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and set you on the throne of Israel! Because the Lord loved Israel forever, he has made you king, that you may execute justice and righteousness,”
it was evidence she had been officially “salted”.

Regrettably, Israel did not maintain a consistent testimony. The Lord’s words can be legitimately taken as a rebuke to his nation: If salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

Just so. We could make the argument that this is precisely what occurred in AD70 when the Romans sacked Jerusalem and dispersed its people throughout the empire. It’s hard to imagine the implicit warning here is unintentional.

Personal Salt

Secondly, individual Israelites in proper relationship to their God were salt to the earth as well. Thankfully this testimony has always remained no matter the condition of the nation. Remember the little Israelite girl kidnapped by Syrians? The kingdom of Israel was a mess at the time; no testimony to Jehovah at all. But she mentioned the prophet in Samaria to her master’s wife, and graciously preserved the life of Naaman the leper. Salt of the earth, that’s what she was.

The salt metaphor is both an encouragement and a warning to those who follow Christ. Luke seems to have written his gospel for Gentiles; his incorporation of the salt theme in the context of discipleship generally suggests a broader application than some themes found in the Sermon.

We are all the “salt of the earth”.

A Note on Translation

The word rendered “lost its taste” occurs only a few times in New Testament Greek, and the choice of English translators to concentrate only on that lone aspect of saltiness seems inferred from context rather than supported by consistent usage. Elsewhere the same Greek word means “become foolish” or “been made foolish”, so I suspect a more literal translation might be “been made ineffective”.

In fact, this is obvious from the Lord’s statement that “it is no longer good for anything”. It doesn’t taste good, it doesn’t preserve anything, and you certainly wouldn’t offer it to God.

This is likely why the NIV has translated it “if the salt loses its saltiness” (rather than just “taste”), implying an essential character and usefulness that goes well beyond adding flavor to food.

Good for Nothing?

One last Old Testament illustration: Abimelech razed a city and sowed it with salt, presumably so that nothing could grow there. Salt’s final Old Testament quality is that it serves as a sign of judgment. Think Lot’s wife.

Nobody, but nobody, ever gets the best of God. Unsalty salt is still good for one last thing: being “thrown out and trampled”. It functions as a cautionary tale, which is precisely what the nation of Israel became for almost two millennia. On the individual level, even the liars Ananias and Sapphira were “used” by God, as were Judas Iscariot and others. Just not in this life, not for their original purpose, and not to their own benefit.

I guess the worst disciple in the world is still good for something …

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