Salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13)

When you’re as sensational as salt, it would be senseless to lose your flavour.

Open Matthew 5:13.

Decaffeinated coffee. Gluten free. Dairy free. Sugarless sweets. Food without calories or kilojoules. How about salt-free salt? Would that sell?

Salt is totally unpalatable. If you found yourself with a mouthful of salt, what would you do? You can’t swallow it by the spoonful. It’s too … well … salty.

That’s exactly what God intended when he formed Israel into his nation. He was their king, and they represented God’s kingship. His Law gave them wisdom to be the most amazing society on earth. While others were ruled by mere morals, Israel represented the kingdom of God.

Wisdom was following the Law of YHWH, and distaining his Law was folly. Israel behaved foolishly. In the language Jesus spoke (Aramaic), the word tāpēl means to be foolish. The word also means to be tasteless. By foolishly disobeying YHWH’s Torah, they lost their distinctive saltiness — they became senseless. As a result, the big empires (Assyria and Babylon) were able to swallow them. They lost their distinctiveness representing God’s kingdom, and became part of other kingdoms.

Jesus proclaimed the restoration of God’s kingdom. In his inaugural address from the mountain, their newly anointed king calls them back to God’s purpose. He promises to restore the blessing of divine rule to the poor, the mourning, the powerless, the disenfranchised. He calls God’s kingdom people to mercy, to pure motives, to peacemaking, and to perseverance under persecution. He warns them not to lose their saltiness, their unique flavour as the society under God’s rule.

Followers of King Jesus are the hope of the world. From the beginning, God decreed that he would be known through people, that people would image him by managing his creation. But if his people lose their saltiness — the divine flavour that defines human identity — what can repair their unsaltiness? What hope is there for the world? Followers of King Jesus are the taste of divine kingship on earth.

If we lose our saltiness — the God-flavour in our community — we lose our identity. We will be thrown out, just as God threw his people out of the Promised Land when they lost their saltiness and were swallowed by Babylon. We can expect to be trampled underfoot by people — standard language of God’s judgement on his disobedient people in Old Testament times (e.g. Isaiah 10:6; 25:10; 63:3, 6). We become a wasteland (e.g. Deuteronomy 29:23; Psalm 107:34; Jeremiah 17:6; Zephaniah 2:9). So does the earth.

We must not make the same mistake as previous generations, becoming (absurdly) saltless salt. Jesus’ followers must not become fools, exchanging our piquant identity for the blandness of an ordinary life following ordinary pursuits instead of the kingdom of God. God doesn’t have desalinated salt.

So even if we face persecution from the powers that want to run the world, our communal life must keep the distinctive flavour of God’s kingship. Our survival depends on it.

Matthew 5:13 (The Message)
Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.


What others are saying

Ceslas Spicq and James D. Ernest, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), Volume 2, 537–538:

Salt has a double function: preserving and seasoning the foods to which it gives taste and savor. That is to say, “it has no worth apart from its action on other objects.” If it becomes tasteless, it loses its property and becomes analon, “saltless” (Mark 9:50), ceases to be salt; thenceforth it is unusable, because it is impossible to imagine what could be used to season it anew, a salt to salt it with. Thus the disciple — salt that ought to add seasoning —  if he loses the “virtue” of the gospel, is no longer good for anything. Certainly it is impossible to imagine “desalted” salt, but the aorist passive subjunctive mōranthē is to be taken metaphorically as applying to disciples who are no longer worthwhile in the spiritual order; they are denatured or nonexistent, “nothings.”

Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 175:

Disciples dare not allow the world to dilute their effectiveness, or they belong on the garbage heap. Such Christians will indeed be “trampled” (implying judgment as in the parables of Matt 25) because they are ineffective and useless.

Augustine, Serm. in Mont. i.6:

If you by whom the nations are to be salted shall lose the kingdom of heaven through fear of temporal persecution, who are they by whom your error shall be corrected. Another copy has, If the salt have lost all sense, shewing that they must be esteemed to have lost their sense, who cither pursuing abundance, or fearing lack of temporal goods, lose those which are eternal, and which men can neither give nor take away.

[previous: Conflict of kingdoms]

[next: Jesus’ kingdom manifesto]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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