TXAB: The Christ Almighty Blog

29 August 2016

The earth’s salt.

We’re to flavor the world. Not preserve it, nor pour grit into it.

Mark 9.43-50 • Matthew 5.13 • Luke 13.34-35

If you’ve ever heard someone called “the salt of the earth,” usually they mean a decent person—but kinda ordinary. No, that’s not what Jesus meant when he coined the phrase “salt of the earth.” Or as I translated it, “the earth’s salt.” I’ve no idea how it evolved from a remarkable person to an unremarkable person.

But when Jesus uses it, he means remarkable. He means a flavor enhancer. Be the salt of the earth: Enhance it. Make it taste better.

Mark 9.49-50 KWL
49 “Everything for the fire will be salted. Lv 2.13 50 Salt is good.
When salt becomes saltless, in what way will it season things?
Have salt in yourselves. Have peace with one another.”
Matthew 5.13 KWL
“You’re the earth’s salt.
When salt is tasteless, in what way will it salt things? It’s of no use.
Well, unless it’s thrown outside, to be walked upon by people.”
Luke 14.34-35 KWL
34 “So salt is good.
When salt is also tasteless, in what way will it salt things?
35 It’s neither useful for the ground nor the dungheap.
They throw it outside. Hear me, you who have ears to hear.”

The spin Mark took on it is a little bit different than the ideas we find in Matthew. I’ll get to it momentarily. First the Sermon on the Mount idea.

In Matthew and Luke, Jesus points out the difference between flavorful and tasteless salt. (Not salt which becomes tasteless; that’s the Mark idea. We’re not doing Mark yet.) There are such things as flavorless salts. They’re used for all the things where salt comes in handy—but not as a flavor enhancer. For that, we prefer sodium chloride, table salt. For other things which don’t involve our taste buds, we use other salts. Like sodium bicarbonate, baking soda; or sodium nitrate, saltpeter, a preservative.

Yeah, let’s talk preservation. In those pre-icehouse, pre-freezer, pre-canning days, salt was used to preserve food. Christians often use this verse to claim we Christians are likewise to preserve things. To keep what’s good in the world. Or to hold on to what we value, like customs and traditions, property and money… stuff Jesus actually may be interested in getting rid of ’cause we’re clinging to our conservatism instead of him.

But since Jesus speaks about salt’s flavor, he clearly isn’t talking about preservative. Tasteless salt is still useful for preservation. For that matter, you can still use it to salt the walkways in icy weather—that’s what Jesus means by throwing it outside to be walked on. Mt 5.13 And maybe not even that. Lk 14.35 (“Or the dungheap” refers to baking soda’s ability to knock out odors.) Still, Jesus is only interested in flavorful salt. He means table salt. Not the other kinds.

So we’re to be that salt. The preserving kind has its uses, but Jesus wants flavor. The ice-melting kind melts ice; the fertilizing kind grows plants; the smell-neutralizing kind kills odors. But Jesus wants flavor. Be flavorful. Flavor the world.

Salt that loses flavor.

Because Mark has Jesus refer to “when salt becomes saltless,” Christians wind up reading that idea into the other gospels, and translating eán to álas moranthí/“if salt is moronic”—or, considering the context, “tasteless”—thisaway:

  • “If the salt have lost his savour…” (Geneva Bible, KJV)
  • “If salt has lost its taste…” (ESV, NRSV)
  • “If salt has become tasteless…” (NASB)
  • “If it loses its saltiness…” (GNB, NIV)
  • “If it loses its flavor…” (NKJV, NET, NLT)

Can salt lose flavor? Not if it’s pure sodium chloride, like we have in the present day. (Sometimes iodized.) But that wasn’t the case in the first century. In the Roman Empire, salt was extracted from salt mines or salt water, so it wasn’t pure. It was part salt, and part whatever other minerals there were in the salt deposits. If you got it wet, all the salt could leech out, leaving behind nothing but those other minerals. In other words, saltless salt.

That’s what Jesus means in Mark. He’s actually teaching a different lesson in Matthew and Luke, and it’s not really appropriate to read that idea into those gospels. There, Jesus isn’t talking about losing our saltiness. He’s talking about being the wrong sort of salt. Be the flavor enhancer. Not the other salts.

The reason it’s important to recognize Jesus is talking about flavorful salt, is this: Christians are way too much in the habit of assuming all Jesus’s parables and lessons are about salvation. So if you “lose your saltiness,” it implies you’ve lost your salvation. If you’re good for nothing but being thrown onto the road or dungheap—or worse, thrown into the fires of ge-Henna—people assume Jesus is teaching, “Don’t lose your saltiness, or you’re going to hell.”

That is not what Jesus means.

But that’s what Christians jump to. Especially since Mark brings up fire—whatever that means. Christians just assume it means hell. Again, it does not. I’ll explain in the next section. First let me reiterate: The Sermon on the Mount, the bit in Matthew and Luke, isn’t about that. It’s about being the correct salt for the situation.

Flavorless salt doesn’t enhance the world. More often, it makes it gritty. A lot of us Christians are totally gritty. We don’t make the world better; we grind up its gears. Our pessimism, our constant outrage, our knocking everything down instead of building everyone up, and our justifying these bad behaviors by pointing out how we gotta fight sin. All that stuff makes us grit, not salt.

Do we enhance our world? Do we change things for the better? Or are we only interested in fighting stuff? Fighting the system instead of trying to fix it, make it righteous, make it help the needy? Banning stuff instead of supporting good things?

Are we interested in making things new? Or lifting up the old, as if it’s better—when half the time it’s not better, but only familiar and comfortable?

Jesus intends to make the world better. To fix it. That’s what God’s kingdom is all about. Are we being that sort of people for the kingdom’s sake? Or do we define ourselves by what we stand against? For that’s not being salt. We’re to flavor the world, not ruin the meal.

Salt and fire.

See, reading Mark’s idea into the other gospels brings up one of the more common mistakes we find in bible interpretation: We find two passages of the bible which are talking about similar ideas, and automatically assume they’re about the same idea. Every time the bible talks about stars, they figure “stars” always means angels, ’cause they do in Revelation. Rv 1.20 Every time the bible talks about birds, they figure “birds” means devils, ’cause they do in Jesus’s parable of the seeds. Lk 8.5, 12 To them, the bible’s a secret code, and once you find the key, it opens every interpretation.

It does not. Not even in similar versions of the same Jesus story. Even then we gotta look at the context.

In Matthew “the earth’s salt” is connected with “the world’s light” in the next verses. Mt 5.14-16 It’s about enhancing the world. In Luke it comes right after parables about counting the cost, Lk 14.25-33 and right before accepting the lost, Lk 15 and since it doesn’t easily fit either of those themes, it’s arguably a stand-alone teaching. Interpreted on its own, we can kinda come to the same conclusion as Matthew: Salt is good, so be salty.

But in Mark, here’s the context of the bit about salt.

Mark 9.43-50 KWL
43 “When your hand trips you up, amputate it. It’s better for you to enter life crippled
than have two hands and go into ge-Henna, into the endless fire.
45 When your foot trips you up, amputate it. It’s better for you to enter life limping
than have two feet and be thrown into ge-Henna.
47 When your eye trips you up, toss it. It’s better for you to enter God’s kingdom one-eyed
than have two eyes and be thrown into ge-Henna.
48 Where their worm doesn’t stop and the fire doesn’t end.
49 Everything for the fire will be salted. Lv 2.13 50 Salt is good.
When salt becomes saltless, in what way will it season things?
Have salt in yourselves. Have peace with one another.”

It’s a little bit longer once you include all the additions the Textus Receptus made to the original, which we see in the KJV, NKJV, and MEV. I put ’em in brackets.

Mark 9.43-50 KWL
43 “When your hand trips you up, amputate it. It’s better for you to enter life crippled
than have two hands and go into ge-Henna, into the endless fire.
44 [Where their worm doesn’t stop and the fire doesn’t end.]
45 When your foot trips you up, amputate it. It’s better for you to enter life limping
than have two feet and be thrown into ge-Henna, [into the endless fire.
46 Where their worm doesn’t stop and the fire doesn’t end.]
47 When your eye trips you up, toss it. It’s better for you to enter God’s kingdom one-eyed
than have two eyes and be thrown into [the fire of] ge-Henna.
48 Where their worm doesn’t stop and the fire doesn’t end.
49 Everything for the fire will be salted, [for ‘every sacrifice will be salted.’] Lv 2.13 50 Salt is good.
When salt becomes saltless, in what way will it season things?
Have salt in yourselves. Have peace with one another.”

Contrary to popular belief, ge-Henna itself isn’t literally hell, but a euphemism for it. ’Cause ge-Henna was like hell: It was the landfill outside Jerusalem, where never-ending trash fires burned day and night. Hence the idea of endless fire.

Jesus spoke about your hand, foot, or eye causing you to skandalídzei/“trip up.” In context he’s talking about temptation, and that’s how people tend to interpret it. Temptation trips us up. That was the original sense of the KJV’s “offend thee,” since offend comes from the Latin offendō/“trip up.” Other bibles correctly went with “stumble.” (NASB, NIV)

Trouble is, offend currently means “feel upset”—same as our English word scandalize, which is based on skandalídzei. So people assume this word has to do with emotion or outrage. If your limb outrages you, lop it off. Of course, if you’ve given in to temptation, and are hip-deep in sin, you’re long past the point of outrage. Still, some bibles made the same mistake popular Christian culture does, and confuse temptation with sin. Hence “sin” (ESV, NKJV) or even “lose your faith.” (GNB) Supposedly these body parts might so offend you, you’ll quit trusting God. Yikes.

It’s only after the ge-Henna-talk Jesus talks about salt. The Textus added a reference to the Levitcus passage which talks about salting the grain offerings. Lv 2.13 It’s a reminder that if we lop off body parts so we can avoid sin, it’s sort of a sacrifice. We’ll sacrifice our bodies, our comforts, our wholeness, just to follow God wholeheartedly.

Commentators speculate about just what the salt represents in these sacrifices. Purification?—’cause salt purifies. (As does fire.) Suffering?—’cause rubbing salt into wounds was a form of torture. (As was fire.) Why salt? What does Jesus mean by it?

Well duh; read verse 50. “Have salt in yourselves. Have peace with one another.” That’s Hebrew poetry, where you repeat ideas in order to make your point more memorable. “Have salt in yourselves” means “Have peace with one another.” Salt is peace. Salt, in the sacrifices, represents peace. Not flavor enhancement; certainly not suffering. It means we have the quality within ourselves which makes us peacemakers. As children of God do. Mt 5.9

Yep, this is a different idea than the one Matthew and Luke were teaching. It’s similar, but not the same. When we’re insistent it is the same, we’re gonna miss it. Context matters, folks. Sometimes one gospel sheds light on another. And sometimes they’re presenting different ideas, and making a frappé of the gospels turns the ideas into something useless, like a mustard smoothie. Often we gotta stick to the context of each individual gospel. Like here.

The Pharisees regularly used salt as a metaphor for peace. As did Paul.

Colossians 4.5-6 KWL
5 Walk in wisdom towards outsiders: Make the best use of time, 6 your message always gracious,
seasoned with salt, knowing how you have to answer one and all.

Where salt means peace, we work on getting along with one another. And with everyone else; keeping relations with the difficult, self-focused, sin-screwed world around us. When we have “salt” in ourselves, we keep the peace. When we don’t, we’re still tripping up. And tripping others up, who can’t get past our obnoxiousness.

As you’ve seen in many a fruitless Christian. The way some of us behave towards others, it’s no wonder Christians get hassled, mocked, and picked on: Anyone would wanna persecute them. Heck, I wanna persecute some of us sometimes. And when they do get persecuted, that’s why you see no sympathy for their plight: Christians behaving badly gives bullies all the justification they need.

How do we get sympathy? Be sympathetic. How do we get kindness? Be kind. How do we make peace? Be peaceful. Have salt.

So make peace, as much as you can, with everyone you can. Make sure you’re not bothering the neighbors with your noise. Be kind and generous to strangers. Be courteous. When someone tries to pick a fight, talk ’em down. Stop picking your own fights! Quit bashing your political opponents to their supporters. Stop acting like other people’s children, and act like God’s children.

Be the earth’s salt—in all the ways Jesus wants us to.