Saturday, February 8, 2014

"You are the salt of the earth. . . ."

Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel from Matthew (Chapter 5, v.13) : " You are the salt of the earth."  And then He says, " But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?  It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot."  What in the world does He mean by that? I’m not at all sure, are you?  First of all, let’s talk about salt.  That most  essential and common condiment in almost all of our lives.

Salt is not just part of our vocabulary, it’s part of our menu.
Do you like the taste of salt?  Well, let me put it another way.  Do you like potato chips?  Then you like salt.  How about pretzels?  Or a slice of Italian salami?  Or a sliver of  Swiss cheese or Camembert?  Or how about some bacon with your eggs? Or a crunchy  Kosher dill pickle cured in a brine of spices and -- that’s right-- salt?  If you like any of these foods or most any food for that matter, then you like salt.

Imagine a completely salt-free diet.  Or better yet, ask someone who is on a low-sodium regimen and ask them how much they enjoy it.  They will tell you straight out:  it’s awful! Your food is so bland and uninteresting it’s almost not worth eating.  It doesn’t taste like anything! When we think of salt,  then, we don’t think of its own flavor, but rather the taste of things whose flavor it is meant to enhance.

Finally, in our own time, salt is, well, pretty much a free commodity, or almost.  When we go to a restaurant or a fast-food outlet, salt is right there alongside all the other things that we aren’t directly charged for, like napkins, straws, toothpicks, ice water, and, of course, pepper.  At McDonalds or In and Out Burgers, or  Paneras, or almost any fast-food outlet.

Salt, then,  is cheap, readily accessible, and, as I’ve mentioned, practically free.  And by the way, I’ve never seen anyone throw out a box of salt.  Look carefully.  There is no expiration date!  Salt has been around a long time, and it’s not going away any time soon.

But let’s listen again to Scripture:   Jesus says: " You are the salt of the earth."  And then He says, " But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?  It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot."

Again, doesn’t that still strike you as a little bit odd? What is He saying to us?  Well, let’s consider some other information. 
Salt, in the time of Jesus, was used both as a flavoring, but even more importantly, as a food preservative.  In fact, it was the food preservative for many, many centuries.  In the absence of refrigeration,  the use of salt was crucial in preserving foods:  especially meat and fish.

Salt was expensive, too. It could only be obtained by evaporation or extraction:  either by the slow process of drying out in the sun in designated salt beds, or through the crude and perilous process of mining.  In fact, in the time of Jesus, salt was so rare and expensive that it was used as currency.  Worthy soldiers in the Roman army were given salt—or salario—as their compensation.  A word that, for us, has become the term salary.  Speaking of the Romans, they  even built several special roads, like the Via Salaria, to transport salt to urban centers.

The rock salt  they mined wasn’t wonderful, by the way; it had to be cleansed of impurities first. So that in cooking, salt was always placed in a cloth bag and suspended into a broth or soup, and retrieved once its work was done.  Then, the bag was thrown away.
Then, as now, salt was rare, expensive, and necessary. And its use was nearly universal.   Nomads lived by slaughtering and eating their herds.  The flesh of animals already contains an adequate level of salt for human consumption.  But everyone else—anyone who wasn’t a nomad, but who lived off the earth directly or indirectly—had to find salt another way most of the time. And they had to pay through the nose for it.

So let’s return to the Scriptures once more.  Jesus is not telling us to use salt. He is telling us to be salt.  The salt of the entire earth, as a matter of fact. Well, now he meaning is becoming somewhat more accessible. He is telling us that we are rare, precious, and necessary.
That we are meant to add flavor and zest to all of life as part of the realization of the Kingdom He proclaims and promises.

We are not the main dish.  That’s clear.  The Lord is.  But we are meant to  add ‘flavor’ to our world by our presence and commitment, not by trying to dominate it. 

He doesn’t say anything about how many of us there need to be, by the way.   Or how rich,  powerful, or imposing.  After all, it is estimated that the first Christian community in Rome initially numbered just about 200 people out of a population of 2 million!  And the vast majority of them were poor and struggling people.
Nevertheless, they were called in their time—just as we are in ours-- to add to the flavor of our world by being  the presence of Christ and of Christ’s witness to justice, peace, love and mercy in every situation in which we find ourselves.

We do this when we help to  heal, unite, and to bring home other human beings who are suffering.  And when we do so consistently over time,  it shows.  Both in us and  through us.  And in  the Kingdom we are called to proclaim with our lives.

Not only that—and this is an important caveat-- we need to renew and replenish our resources and reserves through prayer, meditation, sacraments (especially the Eucharist), and rest.

Jesus says:   “You are the salt of the earth.  But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?  It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

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