A passage of scripture that has bothered me over the years is Matthew 5:13: “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.”
In my morning devotional today the parallel passage in Luke 14:34 was included in the reading, so the problematic question came up again: How can salt lose its taste?
Common Table Salt (sodium chloride) is by its nature one of the most stable compounds in existence. I grew up on a cattle ranch in Montana, and we would place blocks of salt (with other minerals) out by where we would feed the cattle in winter, as sort of a vitamin supplement. Those salt lick blocks could sit through blizzards, through rain storms, through scorching sun, and I could still break a piece off and it would still taste as salty as the day we put it out there.
Is Jesus confused here? The positive attributes of salt have been discussed in countless sermons (preservative, flavoring, etc.) and applied in analogy in countless ways, but this negative attribute — losing its flavor — apparently isn’t possible.
I know it’s probably strange how much this bothered me… but it did.
As I was pondering the context in Luke around this verse, I began to see something, however. Jesus talks about a dinner leading up to this verse. (And food and salt go together, right? He knows how readily I combine the two.) The picture is of Jesus inviting the successful, upright people to dinner, but those people find they have more important things to do; they’re buying property, they’re focusing on their business, they’ve got a dinner date with the wife. So Jesus sends out for the “street people,” who are more than willing to come. He then talks about wisdom in planning to build, or planning to fight, and immediately precedes the “salt” verse with this: “Simply put, if you’re not willing to take what is dearest to you, whether plans or people, and kiss it good-bye, you can’t be my disciple.” (The Message.)
And so if we are disciples, he says we are salt. But, how do we become tasteless? So I looked at that word — “tasteless” in English — and found that the Greek word is “moraino,” which means “to be foolish.” It comes from the root “moros,” where we get our English word, “moron.” Variations of that word are used in Romans 1 (“professing to be wise, they became fools”) and in 1 Corinthians 1 (“God made foolish the wisdom of this world”).
So if we become foolish, we lose the transformational effect that accompanies our nature we have as disciples. And what “foolish” things does Jesus talk about preceding this?
- Letting religious rules supplant showing mercy (Luke 14:5)
- Grasping for preference and exalting ourselves (Luke 14:11)
- Showing preference for the rich instead of the poor (Luke 14:13)
- Placing our own plans and projects ahead of the Kingdom (Luke 14:16-33)
The only way that I can see salt becoming useless for flavoring is if it becomes contaminated with dirt, or other foreign substances. Do we contaminate our saltiness with foolish, foreign things?
Since Luke didn’t write in chapters and verses, the passage immediately following the “salt of the earth” statement is relevant also.
Luke 15:1-3 from The Message: “By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, ‘He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.’ Their grumbling triggered this story.”
In the stories following Jesus speaks of seeking, receiving, and celebrating the lost: The Lost Coin, the Lost Sheep, and the Lost Son.
The passage that bothered me for years regarding Jesus’ knowledge in chemistry and culinary skill still bothers me — perhaps even more — with my understanding of the root meaning of the word “tasteless.”
- Do I let the religious disciplines I’ve implemented in my life suffice to salve my conscience regarding my obligation to the lost?
- Who would I prefer to hang with and have respect from; the “street people” or church leaders?
- Who do I show deference toward: The respected or the rejected?
- Do my goals and aspirations, my acquisitions and my projects, conflict with Jesus’ plans to reach the lost?
Am I the salt and light that Jesus said I would be? Or am I a fool?