We have the great opportunity today of continuing our consideration of the Sermon on the Mount: this programmatic speech of Our Lord that really sums up his teaching for us. Last week we looked at the Beatitudes, a sort of prologue to the entire speech. And now right after the Beatitudes we find this short Gospel for today. Jesus says, speaking to his disciples and followers: You are the salt of the earth.
In many ways, the notion of being the salt of the earth has become a watchword or adage meaning someone who is simple, basic, and without guile. As in the phrase: “ya know those people are the salt of the earth.”
Jesus means something quite different here. His statement has a lot of spiritual power and spiritual overtones to it. Let us now consider what he means by being “salt.”
Salt, today and in Our Lord’s time, is more than anything else something that helps to make food taste good. Whenever you take a sip of soup or bite into a burger, or you savor some French fries and you say: Mmmmm, that’s good! What you are referencing, above all, is the salt content, which explains why so many of us have high blood pressure as we get older. If you don’t believe me this score, try a truly salt-free diet sometime and see how much you enjoy the food.
Salt is what makes food taste good; it’s what makes it taste savory. So what is Jesus telling his followers, which is to say US? He is saying that we are meant to make the world spicy and tasty. Now, I know it’s a paradox that we usually associate spiciness with Las Vegas or Monte Carlo or with people who live in the fast lane. BUT, you know what? That lifestyle and those people, at the end of the day, are ultimately very dull indeed.
There is something quite boring, repetitive, and addicting about a life that’s completely given over to sensual pleasure and egotistic pursuits. Do you doubt me? Just look at those programs about people who have lived the Hollywood lifestyle their whole lives and made it to old age and then look back on it. Tell me how happy they seem to you. I think so very many of them seem very dull and discontented.
Those people who make life tasty and savory and enjoyable are precisely those who channel the Divine Life; who become conduits of grace. It’s not the Vegas or Hollywood people who make life spicy. It’s the saints who make life savory, rich, tasty, spicy! It is the saints who pepper life with Divine Grace and make it cheerful and joyful. The people I most like to spend time with are those who channel into the world something of God’s Presence. They are the true spice of life. They are the salt.
Another dimension of salt, especially in the ancient world, is its preservative quality. We take it for granted, in the presence of refrigeration that allows us to preserve milk and butter and meat for long periods of time. In the ancient world milk, butter, and meat had to be consumed right away. Otherwise, meat would have to be preserved by means of salting it. Salt was a commodity that was hard to come by in the time of Our Lord. Exposed to the environmental elements, meat would rot and become inedible. In other words: salt kept good things good.
You don’t need me to tell you that we live in a world gone wrong; a world marred by hatred, violence, corruption, self-absorption, sexual sin, the exploitation of children, etc., etc. Simply watch the 10 o’clock news! But, amidst all this is much that is good and wholesome. There is generosity, kindness, love, even of enemies, and there is non-violence. Yet, the good is continually threatened by the bad. It’s threatened by evil elements with the moral and spiritual environment. The point is, the good meat will quickly rot if there is no salt around.
Jesus is telling his followers and US: You are the salt of the earth! This means you must insinuate yourselves into every nook and cranny of the world in order to act as preserving agents for what is good and just and true and beautiful.
Do you think of your work in this way? Do you think of your family in this way? Without your example, without your good word, without your love, the good things might not last, they might not survive. Whatever is good and right and true and beautiful at your place of work needs you to be around to preserve it. Whatever is of God in your family needs you, your love, your devotion, your generosity, your kindness to preserve it.
Perhaps your goodness will keep a good kid from going bad. Think about that. Here’s a child, he’s got good in him, and he’s got bad in him. What will prevent the good from going bad? Maybe it’s YOU! Your example, your kind word may make the difference.
Perhaps your commitment to righteousness will keep a colleague from making a bad decision or from turning in the wrong direction.
Have you ever wondered if your humor, your good cheer might prevent a decent person from falling into depression or just giving up? Do you see? You have the power to act as a moral and spiritual preservative. That’s what Our Lord means by saying you are the salt of the earth! Spicy—YES! And you preserve what is worth preserving!
Now flipping it around, there is yet another sense of salt that gives this symbolism so much power. While it was used in ancient times as a preservative, it was also used as an instrument of destruction...salt in the earth.
When the Romans conquered Carthage, they killed the people, knocked down the walls, and then they salted the earth, assuring that nothing would ever grow there again. That was their way of utterly destroying Carthage. Salt preserves it can compromise and destroy as well!
In Our Lord telling his followers that they, that we, are the salt of the earth, we are meant, in some sense, to be agents of destruction as well. In the measure that we block, we get in way of, we criticize, and we undermine things that are hostile and adverse to God’s good purposes. The gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church! This means the Church is on the offensive. This image implies not that Hell is coming after US but that we are going after Hell! The gates of Hell will not prevail against US! We have an aggressive purpose in the world which is to go after hatred, violence, stupidity, superstition, prejudice, and self-absorption.
Did you, by chance hear about the most chilling statistic coming out of New York City? In that city 41% of all pregnancies end in abortion. You heard me right, 41%, coming close to half all pregnancies in NYC end in abortion. Wherever you happened to be on this issue, you cannot be in any way happy about this statistic. Here’s my question: Who is getting in the way of that? Who’s blocking it? Who’s going after it? Who’s destroying it? Who is operating as salt of the earth?
The streets of major cities around this country are becoming killing fields. There are absolutely unbearable, unacceptable levels of violence in the streets of our great modern cities.
Where are the Christians who are getting in the way of that? Remember how Martin Luther King, Jr. actively stood in the way of a dysfunctional society? He got into the face of segregation. Who is getting in the fact of the violence in our cities? THAT is being salt of the earth!
And now, just a point about light, Jesus also says: You are the light of the world. He says: you are a city set on a mountain. That is to say that you are all about vision, direction, and illumination. It’s no accident that all the saints and angels are depicted with haloes around their heads. The idea is that these are the beings that show us the deepest truth of things and therefore show us the way. That’s what light does. It shows you the way.
When you are walking in darkness and a light goes on then you know where you are going. That’s the role of Christians in the world.
Think of a candle in the window on a cold, dark winter’s night. That is what a follower of Christ is supposed to be. The world often is a cold, dark winter’s night. Who is shedding light? Who is giving hope? Who shows the way when we are a bit lost? It must be the followers of Christ.
That is why when things looked pretty bleak Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the Little Flower, St. Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, St. Paul, St. Augustine, we can go on, all these and others show us the where to go and how to walk. They shed brilliant light on the path.
Every single baptized person is meant to be a light in a similar way. We cannot, MUST NOT, shirk our duty as lights to the world.
And so, my dear brothers and sisters: Make life spicy--that’s the first task.
Make it enjoyable, rich, cheerful, and savory.
Preserve what is good in the world. You do this by your kindness and goodness.
Undermine what needs to be undermined. Confront evil and darkness wherever you find it.
And then, show people the way, give people hope by the very beauty and decency of your life.
In other words, BE SALT and BE LIGHT!