Salt and Light

We welcome this morning some friends and neighbors from across the street at Westminster Presbyterian church. They have been working for several years with Living Waters for the World, helping communities and households gain access to clean, safe drinking water, both here in Tennessee and in South America. We are partnering with Westminster to strengthen the global efforts of Living Waters for the World and to take our first steps of hands-on mission in another country with brothers and sisters who have done this work well and who are eager to have us serve side by side with them. Our friends from Westminster came over today to talk to us about their experiences in Peru and in Macon County, and they brought with them a complete water purifying system for show and tell; this way more of us can take a look, even put our hands on it, and become familiar with the simple and highly effective technology.

So today is a good day to remember that God’s people are not new to the water purification business. Perhaps you remember the story from the second book of Kings, where the people of a certain city turned to Elisha and said, “The location of this city is good, as my lord sees; but the water is bad, and the land is unfruitful.” He said, “Bring me a new bowl, and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him. Then he went to the spring of water and threw the salt into it, and said, “Thus says the Lord, I have made this water wholesome; from now on neither death nor miscarriage shall come from it.” So the water has been wholesome to this day, according to the word that Elisha spoke.[1]

I couldn’t help but tell this story today when in the gospel reading Jesus tells his followers, “you are the salt of the earth.” When I listen to his words in the context of Elisha’s spring purification, “you are the salt of the earth” sounds like “you are agents of healing, you are agents of wholeness who serve the flourishing of life.”

Water and life, of course, go hand in hand, but so do salt and life. We love the taste of salt, and for good reason; our bodies need it to function well. In addition to helping maintain the right balance of fluids, salt helps transmit nerve impulses, and it allows our muscles to work properly. We hear so much about salt being bad for us, when in fact it is essential for our wellbeing. Unrefined salt contains just about everything you find in a bottle of Gatorade, except the artificial color and flavor. Unrefined salt is a convenient package of sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium, as well as other vital minerals. It is as though we carry in our bodies the ancient memory of the sea, and we thrive as long as we have a tiny dose of the ocean in us. A tiny dose, my internist would want me to emphasize in the interest of public health.

Salt has also been, for thousands of years, one of the most widely-used food preservatives, especially for meat and fish. Long before the days of Elisha, Egyptians and Phoenicians traded salt fish and salt from North Africa throughout the Mediterranean. The soldiers in Rome’s armies were paid with salt allotments, called salaria in Latin, and many of us still work for a salary. In ancient times, salt was precious as gold, and salt pressed into cakes is one of the earliest currencies in the world.

Salt has been a crucial ingredient in just about any known human culture, and it is no surprise that it gave rise to a variety of symbolic uses. Because of its use as a food preservative, salt came to represent permanence and protection. In ancient Near Eastern cultures, including Israel, a pinch of salt was eaten by the parties to agreements and treaties. Sharing salt expressed a binding relationship. In the Bible, the expression “covenant of salt” illustrates the permanent nature of God’s covenant with God’s people. We like to talk about “rules written in stone” or “iron laws,” but God’s covenants are “covenants of salt,” based in a living relationship of partners who have bound themselves to each other.[2] “You shall not omit from your grain offering the salt of the covenant with your God,” we read in Leviticus, “with all your offerings you shall offer salt.”[3] There certainly was the notion that salt would purify the offering to make it acceptable as a sacred gift, but the pinch of salt also served as a reaffirmation of and recommitment to covenant fidelity.

The preservative power of salt may have been the reason for it becoming the substance of choice to ward off evil forces in general. Perhaps you remember, as I do, a grandmother, maybe on the Italian side of the family, who would throw a pinch of salt over her left shoulder, mumbling a well-worn prayer whenever she felt she needed to keep the devil away. Cultural anthropologists are quite confident that Jewish mothers began rubbing their newborn babies with salt to protect them against evil spirits, as mothers and midwives continue to do to this day in many parts of the world. But I can’t help but wonder – when a mother in Israel rubbed her infant with salt, didn’t she also rub that little one, head to toe, with the covenant promises of God? Didn’t she also put a grain of salt on her child’s lips to give the little one a taste of God’s faithfulness and wisdom? I like to think she did, and that salt – that wondrous, precious substance – never meant just one thing, but was a vessel that contained ever new layers of meaning, generation to generation.

There still is an expression in modern Arabic, “there is salt between us,” meaning, “we are like family, we are close friends.” There is another expression in English, “below the salt,” whose origins date back to the days when salt was rare and expensive. In the houses of people of rank, a large saltcellar was placed near the middle of a long table. The places above it were assigned to the guests of distinction, the seats ‘below the salt’ were for dependents, inferiors, and poor relations. They also could say, “There is salt between us,” but it meant an entirely different thing. Jesus, of course, loved to talk about seating arrangements at the dinner table, and at his table no one was or is considered ‘below the salt.’

These are all echoes I hear when I hear him say to us, “You are the salt of the earth.” You are precious as gold. You bring healing and wholeness. You add flavor and zest to the world. You are a symbol of divine hospitality, friendship, and faithfulness. The earth cannot be without you.

“You are the salt of the earth,” he says to us, right after he said, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Our faithfulness to his way will evoke rejection and  resistance, he says, even persecution – and he tells us to rejoice, because we are on the way to our reward and life’s fulfillment.

We may feel like avoiding the confrontations that come with living as followers of Jesus; we may feel like a little religion is all we want, all we can take. We may feel like adding a little spiritual icing to the world’s cake is just fine. But he tells us what we are: the salt of the earth. Not sugar, not syrup, but salt. A group of people that adds a particular, essential quality and flavor. A group of people that is vital for the wellbeing of the whole. A group of men and women whose way of being in the world is the living reminder of God’s faithfulness to the world and all who live in it. You are the salt of the earth. You are in the world to remind even your enemies of the covenant of grace that binds us all to God and to each other.

We live in a culture that is incredibly creative, but more and more of our collective attention seems to revolve around consumption and entertainment, and not around building strong communities. There is plenty of hostility toward the gospel that calls us to live as brothers and sisters, and little of it comes in the form of outright persecution. It’s more like an endless loop of commercials: friendly faces, beautiful images, great music, and clever lines inviting us 24/7 to believe that life really is all about us and that only the things that can be sold have value.

There are powerful alternatives to covenant living; there are powerful alternatives to understanding our lives as part of Christ’s mission in the world. But the God of righteousness calls for people who share their bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house and clothe the naked, instead of worrying about what they will eat or drink or wear.

When Jesus calls us the salt of the earth, we know one thing for sure: we are good for something, we are meant to add something. We have been called to live with a holy purpose. The way of Jesus Christ reveals to us the unfathomable depth of God’s grace, and our life together in service and in joyful fellowship around the table of Christ gives the world a taste of that ocean of grace, gives the world a glimpse of the sun of righteousness. We are salt because Christ has drawn us into fellowship with him. We are light because the light of the glory of God has been revealed to us in the face of Jesus. The church is salt and light. We are in the world as a living expression of God’s desire to live in covenant with all humankind.


[1] 2 Kings 2:19-22

[2] Numbers 18:19; 2 Chronicles 13:5

[3] Leviticus 2:13