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The Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Saltiness—Matthew 5:13-20 (Amy Allen)

Jesus calls us the salt of the earth and the light of the world. What would these metaphors have meant to his first hearers?

13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

In recent decades, salt and its benefits (or lack thereof) have been highly publicized in the medical and scientific communities. Last summer, the FDA issued a recommendation to food industries for the voluntary reduction of sodium in food products. However, there remain some who argue that the harm from not consuming a certain amount of salt (which is 45% sodium) outweighs the benefits from such a reduction.

In biblical times, however, despite some mixed symbolic usage in Hebrew Scripture, salt was overwhelmingly viewed as a positive resource. Not only does salt add flavor to food (cf. Matthew 5:17), it also preserves certain foods such as meat or fish from spoiling (essential before the invention of refrigeration), helps to purify or cleanse meats through the removal of blood (forbidden to be consumed according to the Torah), and is useful in healing or cleansing certain ailments. All of these uses were commonly known in first century Palestine. Indeed, such uses were likely the cause for the symbolic use of salt in offerings and sacrifice, as well as in sealing God’s covenant with Israel (Numbers 28:19; 2 Chronicles 13:5).

In short, when Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth,” he and his audience likely had much more in mind than a convenient flavor source. Salt was, to put it succinctly, a necessary element of life. And, by extension, salt was a symbolic bond of the necessary relationship between God and Israel.

But now, Jesus, true to Matthean form, has come not to dissolve that covenant, but to fulfil it. And in the process, he associates the people of Israel—indeed, all God’s people—with that very salt itself. Jesus affirms that God’s covenant with us is a lasting one, but it is one not maintained by any single symbol, but rather by the very lives of each one of us.

God invests God’s self permanently in this world, not through salt alone, but through the breath and life of each one of God’s children—created in God’s image. And this investment, like the preserving qualities of salt of which Jesus and his followers knew and depended on all too well, is durative.

Then, Jesus throws a wrench in this image—“But if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” (5:13b)

But salt can’t lose its saltiness!! Did Jesus traffic in alternative facts?

I don’t think so. Instead, I think Jesus and everyone around him knew full well that salt can’t lose its saltiness; that God’s covenant with God’s people doesn’t allow for anyone to be thrown out or trampled under foot!

Humanity—each one of God’s precious children—is the salt of the earth. Each one of us, and each of our neighbors, both far and wide, is indispensable to God’s covenant relationship with God’s people. Indeed, with God’s creation itself. And no amount of executive orders, political posturing, tailored rhetoric, or self-aggrandizement can change God’s commitment to each of God’s children.

Indeed, it is to this level of commitment for righteousness—right living—for all in God’s creation that the rest of Jesus’ words points. Light is not meant to be stored up and enshrined, but rather, to be shared with all who need its guidance and warmth.

May our lights so shine!

The Rev. Dr. Amy Lindeman Allen is Co-Lead Pastor at The Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Reno, NV. She holds her PhD from Vanderbilt University in New Testament and Early Christianity.

2 thoughts on “The Politics of Saltiness—Matthew 5:13-20 (Amy Allen)

  1. John Pilch, biblical scholar, taught us that taste is a modern interpretation. Salt in biblical times was mixed with dung to make dung cakes for fuel (very little wood in Israel). When the dung cakes could no longer fire-up, they were thrown out as stepping stones in the rainy season. The point of Matt. putting salt and light together was that we are to become “fire-starters!” That’s how our lights shine.
    Interesting, too, is that “bushel” did not mean basket. It was a ceramic top placed over the ever burning oil lamps when light wasn’t needed. So, rather than keep the oil lamps from burning brightly and covering them, we keep that fire burning brightly.

  2. The word translated as ‘loss of saltiness’ is ‘moraino’ – translated everywhere else as ‘foolishness.’ If salt becomes foolish – if the covenant becomes a joke – if cleansing becomes cynicism and hypocrisy – how do you get it back?

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