Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 9, 2020
Matthew 5:13-20 Commentary
At a restaurant in California some while back I asked the waitress if their cioppino was good. She assured me it was. Cioppino is a wonderful seafood stew, and the server assured me theirs contained a lot of very fresh clams, shrimp, calamari, and more. I ordered it. And . . . it lacked all salt. Seemed like not so much as a shake of salt had been applied. Most of the seafood had had more salt clinging to it the day it came out of the ocean than it had in my bowl. And though the seafood was fresh and the tomato broth good, the whole dish fell flat. No salt, no flavor. (No positive TripAdvisor review either!)
You are the salt of the earth.” That’s where Jesus starts this part of Matthew 5. Salt, of course, is one of the most sublime as well as one of the most ancient of all cooking spices and additives. Sodium chloride is the only mineral that we human beings take directly from the earth and eat. We would die without salt but we’d also find a good bit of otherwise tasty food to be dull and lifeless were it not for salt. Perhaps that’s why in history some cultures exchanged salt as money. The earliest roads were built to transport salt, the earliest taxes were levied on it, whole military campaigns were launched to secure salt. Salt gave Venice its start as a commercial trading empire in Europe and it helped Gandhi bring India to independence in the mid-twentieth century.
According to Jeffrey Steingarten’s book, The Man Who Ate Everything (whence I got all the info I just wrote), we’re probably the first generation of earthlings to be paranoid about salt. Some people do legitimately have a low tolerance for salt, and people who already have high blood pressure need to monitor their sodium intake. But for the most part we need salt to live and the vast majority of us can handle about as much salt as we want.
On average Americans take in 12,000 milligrams of salt a day or about 266 shakes from a salt shaker. And again, why not? Salt is indispensable to good food. When used thoughtfully, it sharpens and defines flavors and aromas, it melds flavors in ways that transform bland dishes into something complex and wonderful. Salt controls the ripening of cheese, strengthens the gluten in bread, preserves meats, and just generally provides what Robert Farrar Capon called the “music of cookery, the indispensable bass line over which all tastes and smells form their harmonies.” Of course, even so, salt needs to be used well. Few things are more disappointing than finishing a dish at the stove only to remember too late that you forgot to add any salt. Then again, nothing can ruin a soup faster than too much salt (they say you can leech out some salt by floating raw potato slices on top of an over-salted soup but I don’t know . . .).
“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus said to his disciples. (Note: Jesus did not say to become salt but that by virtue of being a disciple, each of us just IS salt.) It was a striking image then and it’s a striking one now, but what does it imply for the life of discipleship? Well, I just mentioned the good effect salt has on the food we eat. Of course, to get that tasty effect, you have to mix the sodium chloride into the food. How foolish it would be to think that just having a box of kosher salt next to the stove will make a difference even if you never sprinkle it into the soup. If you ask a cook, “Did you add any salt?”, then the answer had better not be, “No, but I have a box of it close by. Isn’t that enough?”
That’s an absurd scenario, yet it seems pretty much to be the one Jesus has in mind. In verse 13 Jesus talks about salt losing its saltiness. Actually, however, in Greek Jesus wonders about salt becoming moronos, from which we derive our English word “moron,” or “fool.” If salt becomes foolish, Jesus asks, then what good is it?
To have salt but not use it, to have a shaker of salt sitting next to the stove but never to put any into the pot, is foolish. What’s the sense of having it there if you’re not going to add it to the food thoughtfully and with proper balance? You may as well toss it out the window for all the good such unused salt will do your dinner! Salt has a definite purpose and if you won’t use it for that purpose, then the salt becomes foolish to have around.
The implication for disciples is exceedingly curious: it means that we exist for mixing it up with the world. It means that for us to do our savory gospel task of making this world a better place, we need to be out there, being mixed up into people, culture, and society. Following hard on the heels of his Beatitudes, Jesus is saying that if you’re going to live those grace-filled attitudes, then it’s not enough to work inside the church community, it’s not enough to nurture a strong interior life of spirituality. No, the result of all your piety must be pouring yourself out onto this earth so as to bring out life’s complex and beautiful flavors.
To be useful and true salt, you need to mix into the world, bringing with you gospel savor. But the light still needs to shine, the pathways of God’s kingdom still need to be followed. Maybe it would be easier to let your light shine if you stayed in church all the time, never left home, so to speak. But literal salt that never leaves the shaker does nothing to add zing to your French Fries, and likewise Christian disciples who never interact with non-Christian people have no chance of reaching those people with the influence of that whole new world of God that just is the kingdom.
A while back someone asked the preacher and writer Eugene Peterson what he would say if he were writing what he knew would be his very last sermon (and since Peterson died last year, I wonder if he ever did this). He replied, “I think I would want to talk about things that are immediate and ordinary. In the kind of world we live in, the primary way that I can get people to be aware of God is to say, ‘Who are you going to have breakfast with tomorrow, and how are you going to treat that person?'”
Peterson suggests we need to stop thinking that being a Christian means always being part of only obvious religious contexts. We just need to pay attention to what the people around us are doing most every day and then help them do it in ways that glorify God. “In my last sermon, I guess I’d want to say, ‘Go home and be good to your spouse. Treat your children with respect. Do a good job at work.” We need to be salt in the real world, and that involves genuinely being with real people, listening to them well, and treating them as the little images of God they all are.
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