You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt loses its savor, with what shall it be salted? It is no longer good for anything, but to be thrown out and to be trodden underfoot by men. You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under the grain-measure, but on a lampstand. And it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in Heaven. (Matthew 5:13-16)
According to these words of Christ as recorded by Matthew, any person who is a follower of Jesus Christ should live in such a way so as to have an impact on the world in which they live. Indeed, it seems clear that Christians are called to be agents of change in this life. Thus to suggest that the Christian life is not concerned with "cultural renewal" appears short-sighted. Rather, in light of Christ's words it is plain that our Lord expects us to do more than hold on until he comes.
Jesus does not catalog the various ways he intends for us to apply this metaphor so it is up to us to consider the breadth and depth of his meaning. To begin with we must consider what place salt has in the rest of scripture and in the activity of God's people. It will also be helpful to consider uses of salt that are common to everyday experience. Thus we conclude that Christ would have us to recognize that salt symbolizes perseverance, preservation and pleasure.
As we look to the witness of Scripture are reminded of the use of salt in the Mosaic sacrificial system. Thus, you shall season all your grain offerings with salt. You shall not let the salt of the covenant with your God be missing from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt (Lev. 2:13). Salt was emblematic of friendship, loyalty, faithfulness and permanence. A covenant of salt established by God with the Aaronic priesthood was "forever" (Num. 18:19), and God's covenant of salt with the house of David was likewise considered an unfailing promise (2 Chron. 13:5).
It should be noted that salt in a pure form, cannot lose its saltiness. However, the salt that would have been common in first century Palestine was typically collected from the salt marshes in the region. This salt was cheap and easily procured - but it was full of mineral impurities and had the tendency to "lose its savor" if stored improperly. It's not that the salt itself would become unsalty but that the salt found in the mineral compound collected from the salt mashes, would leach away if the marsh salt were allowed to become damp. Once the salt content had dissolved and drained away, the residual mineral would be salt that had lost its savor. The result would be a soil which was useless for anything except to be trampled underfoot. Though it would no longer be salty enough to flavor food, it would retain enough of the corrosive quality of salt to render it useless as garden compost (Luke 14:34-35). Often, spoiled marsh salt would be used to provide traction in a slippery courtyard after a rain. It was also used to harden the earthen rooftops - rooftops which served as "upper rooms" in the flat-topped homes of the first century Jews. In either case, the flavorless salt would be "trodden underfoot."
The Greek word translated as "lost its savor" means (along with to make flat or tasteless), to be foolish, to act foolishly to make foolish, to prove a person or a thing foolish. Paul uses this term when he writes to the church in Corinth, saying, "has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?" (1 Cor. 1:20) The Bible tells us that the fool has said in his heart that there is no God (Ps. 14:1). To act the fool is to act as if there is no God. Thereby, one who is like salt that has lost its savor is one who is untrue: having turned way from his commitment to God he acts as if God is of no consequence. Since salt is symbolic of fidelity and faithfulness, we understand that someone who enters a "salt covenant" with God and then breaks that covenant is fit only to be cast out.
Hence the first thing Jesus says is that his follower's must possess is the quality of perseverance. We, the salt of the earth, cannot fall away from our commitment to Christ. All other aspects of our "saltiness" depend upon our dedication to the Master.
The metaphor may also include the idea of salt as a preservative. We don't see this quality specifically presented as a theological truth in the older testament, but it is a characteristic of salt that is common to the human experience.
Yet how can the disciples of Jesus Christ act as a preservative in this world? Certainly it is not accomplished by our mere existence. For instance, our preservative action in this world is not a result of our private, personal piety. It requires our involvement in the public square.
As is always the case we must first look to our Lord and Savior for his example, remembering that we are called to imitate and obey him (1 Cor. 11:1, Eph. 4:32-5:1, 1Thess. 1:6, 1 John 2:4-6). What we see is that Jesus was not one to shy away from bringing the truth to bear on every area of life.
Likewise there is no area of life that may be allowed to remain outside of the rule and reign of Christ. In him are "hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col. 2:3). Therefore, "whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him" doing everything with vigor as unto the lord and not unto men (Col. 3:17, 23). So, we act as a preservative in culture by bringing truth to bear in our families - ordering the home according to the precepts of God's word. We are the salt of the earth on the job when we work as God worked; not merely in our honesty and punctuality but in learning to take hold of our vocation, rearranging it and improving upon it (see Kingdom Mandate). Our saltiness is revealed when our political involvement is guided by the law of God rather than the opinions of men. Examples might be multiplied indefinitely; the point is that we act as a preservative when we bring our entire sphere of influence under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. As we do so as individuals, families and organizations we will see the kingdom of God advance like leaven worked through dough. Rather than let the field of politics - for example - go to hell in a handbasket, our job is to introduce the preserving effect of God's own truth. This is true for every area of life. We cannot allow any part of this life and realm to rot but must bring the kingdom (rule of Christ), to bear so as to redeem it from the effects of the curse: science, economics, literature, entertainment, industry and so on are all in need of salty Christians.
A final characteristic of salt we will look at is its flavoring effect. People salt their food to enhance the flavor and to heighten their enjoyment of the dish. In other words, salt is used to enhance the pleasure one experiences in eating.
Our flavor enhancing role is closely tied to our preservation activity. As we become involved in all aspects of this life (to the glory of God), we will bring out the qualities of that sphere which were once hidden by the effects of sin and ungodliness. In other words, as our efforts replace those of the God-haters, we will rediscover aspects of the discipline formerly obscured through neglect or outright attempts to cover up the truth. In the field of science for instance, God honoring - salty - activity will bring to light (and already has brought to light), the mysteries of the mind of God concealed in creation.
Moreover, Christians acting as salt will guide others into a more savory life experience as they learn to appreciate all of life's experiences, finding pleasure even in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake (Matt. 5:11-12, 2 Cor. 12:10).
Jesus says without equivocation that we - his people - are the salt of the earth. As salt we are called to persevere in our commitment to Christ. Out of this commitment will flow the actions which serve to preserve the legitimate human activities and institutions of this life. Finally our saltiness will serve to enhance the overall life experience highlighting the pleasure God intended this world to provide.
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