Salt of the earth, fire of heaven


Matthew 5

Egyptian women carrying dry animal dung fuel

13“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

Why salt makes cattle dung burn better as fuel I do not know, but salt is added to the dung heap, and added as young women form the fuel patties, and a salt slab is placed at the base of the earthen (clay) oven.  Over time, because of the heat of the fires, that salt slab eventually looses its ability to catalyze the fire and it becomes useless except as a stepping-stone.

When Jesus declares, “You are the salt of the earth,” his audience knows whereof he speaks – the earthen oven.  We are the catalyst that makes the fire of heaven burn brighter.

When our society thinks of salt, we think of seasoning – though even there, we tend to think of salt as a danger to our health rather than the precious necessity it is for most.  Our translation assumes this when it takes the word “foolish, silly, worthless,” and makes the sentence read, “If the salt has lost its taste…”.  The true sense is rather, “If the salt slab has become dull, stupefied, insipid, how can it be salted?”

And now we are in the territory of great and clever insult!  “Salt slab of the earthen oven” has been shortened to just say the salt of the earth – and the word earth means land, as in land of Israel.  If the salt slab that was to catalyze the fire of God in Israel has become impotent and silly – if the religious life of the nation that was supposed to be ablaze with the light of the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem, has been extinguished beneath a bushel as soon as it is lighted – if the leadership of priests and scribes and Pharisees have created a folly, an hypocrisy, “having the form of religion but none of its power” – uff da!  “Ooh, snap!”  Jesus has got the crowd’s attention, their laughter, their sympathy…maybe even their return to the way of God.

And this is his purpose.  The earth doesn’t need religious rituals; it needs the fire of heaven to burn brightly.  It needs the work of God to free the bound and restore the broken and gather the human community to blaze brightly.  It needs a people to live the Word of God not just talk about it, to live the justice and mercy and faithfulness of God, to be true heart and hands and voices of God.  We fight silly battles for symbolic but self-aggrandizing defeats (Oh how sweet to know we are the righteous in a godless world) over nativity scenes on the town square and the place of prayer in the schools rather than live the fierce blazing justice of God.

Jesus has much more to say in this Sermon on the Mount about what it means to be true citizens of God’s New Jerusalem, about what the commandments truly require, about the difference between saying “Lord, Lord,” and doing the will of God – but for now, we need to ponder what it means to be the honorable poor, meek, merciful peacemakers who, hungering for God’s righteousness, help the fire of God blaze more brightly.

Oh, yes.  This is also why the beatitudes end with that blessing for the persecuted.  The world that is perishing doesn’t go quietly.  It will drag out the fire hoses.


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