Salt and Light – Part 2 (Matt 5:13)

See yesterday’s post for part 1.

Yesterday we read Matt 5:13-16 and spent some time reflecting on how well we’re being salt and light: and what we might need to change about our lives, to better reflect God to the world. But there is one part of this passage that we haven’t dealt with properly: verse 13. Let’s take another look:

5:13 You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

Don’t you think that it’s a bit jarring? A bit out of place? I mean, the whole opening has been about good news: Rejoice! The kingdom of God’s at hand! And it’s your job, as the people of the kingdom, to live out kingdom values. Be salt and light! These are all positive messages. Then Jesus goes off on a bit of a tangent just for a second: this bit about salt losing its saltiness, and some kind of ominous warning about being trampled. Then he gets back on with the positive stuff again. What’s going on here?

The first question is: can salt actually lose its saltiness? Now if you’ve studied chemistry, the answer is ‘yes, if you use electrolysis’, which can turn it into caustic soda. [2NaCl + 2H20 =>Cl2 + H2 + 2NaOH for the science geeks] And making it salty again just involves adding some hydrochloric acid and evaporating the water. [NaOH + HCl => NaCl + H20.] But I don’t think Jesus had that in mind.

Commentators are divided on whether Jesus’ audience would have thought it possible for salt to lose its saltiness. Some say that the salt deposits in the Dead Sea are so impure that they can leave ‘unsalty’ salt when the sodium chloride dissolves. In other words, ‘unsalty salt’ is a real possibility. And so Jesus is saying that it’s impossible to resalt it, at least humanly speaking.

But there’s an interesting story from late in the first century which gives another possibility. It’s the story of a Jewish rabbi who was asked, ‘When salt becomes unsalty, how is it salted again?’ The rabbi jokingly replied, ‘With the afterbirth of a mule’. I must confess, the hilarity of his answer was initially lost on me, until I remembered what was special about a mule. A mule is a cross between a horse and a donkey; they’re a half-breed which can’t reproduce. Which means there’s no such thing as the afterbirth of a mule. And this is the rabbi’s point. He goes on to say: ‘And is there an afterbirth of a mule? And can salt become unsalty’? Of course not! – is the answer he wants to produce in his hearers. Ask me a stupid question, you’ll get a stupid answer.

Now although our record of this story is from a few decades later than Jesus, it shows that Jesus might have been drawing on a well-known saying in the first century. Which could be why at face value it appears to be a tangent, but isn’t if you know the background. This could be Jesus’ way of pointing out how absurd it is for salt to be anything but salty. That’s what it is! It’s salt! And if it isn’t salty, then it isn’t salt. In other words – if you belong to the kingdom of God, then you are the salt of the earth. And you can’t help but be salty, because that’s who you are. And if you’re not – well, you’re not part of the kingdom.

So again, how can you be salt and light? Answer: just be who you are. As followers of Jesus, just get out there and live up to your identity as the children of God. Don’t hide it when you do things differently from the rest of the world. Flaunt it! Don’t avoid mentioning that you go to church each week. Don’t pretend you’re out partying on Friday nights when you’re really leading youth group. In fact, go out of your way to point out how you live differently. Don’t allow people to think that you treat others at your school or your workplace with respect and concern just because you happen to be a nice person. Let them know that it’s because you’re a follower of Jesus. Don’t allow them to think that your servant attitude is because of low self-esteem or a martyr complex. Let them know it’s in imitation of your Lord and Saviour!

How are you to be salt and light? Just be who you are. And be obvious about it! Don’t put your light under a bowl, let it shine, so that they may see your good deeds, and get a glimpse of the way God intended life to be lived. And say, ‘I’ve gotta get me some of that!’ Or as Jesus put it, so that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

To think about

There’s a tension between trying to be salt and light, and being told that you are salt and light. How does that tension play out in your life?

Pray that God would help you to be what you already are: his salt and his light, in the place he has put you.

Also, take a look at my colleague, Dr Graham Hill’s book, Salt, Light, and a City: Introducing missional ecclesiology.

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