In this week’s selection from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declares his disciples to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” But what does that mean? What are the purpose of salt and light anyway? Read on to see my thoughts–and a little baking advice!
Readings: Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I think we’ve all heard stories about great baking mishaps around salt, right? People confuse salt for sugar in a recipe and end up with salt-licks instead of cookies. There was a memorable one on a cooking competition I was watching where the contestant was making chocolate mousse and got the salt and sugar mixed up. He did not make it to the next round.
I’ve never had such a terrible mix-up myself, but I will confess, when I first started baking, I wasn’t nearly as careful with salt as I should have been. If the recipe called for just a teaspoon, or even a half of a teaspoon, I would often leave it out entirely. I couldn’t be bothered to go the pantry and get one more ingredient. And how much difference could that little salt make? I didn’t want my cookies to taste like salt, anyway.
Now, I know better. You don’t add salt to baked goods, or any recipe really, so that you taste salt. You add salt so that you might taste all the other flavors better. I take salt very seriously now. We have around six or seven different kinds of salt in our house, from table salt to kosher salt to finishing salts.
But it’s also easy for me to take salt for granted. With the exception of our French sea salt, it was all readily available in the grocery store. And even that we could probably find at Whole Foods if we tried. Jesus telling the crowds gathered around him, and by extension telling us, his followers, that we are the salt of the earth is not terribly exciting. The phrase has even come to mean those without pretensions, the not special people.
But for most of history, salt was incredibly important. As Mark Kurlansky writes in his book, Salt: A World History, “from the beginning of civilization until about one hundred years ago, salt was one of the most sought after commodities in human history.” The ancients believed that salt would ward off evil spirits. Religious covenants were often sealed with salt. Salt was used for medicinal purposes, to disinfect wounds, check bleeding, stimulate thirst, and treat skin diseases. Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in salt — hence our English word, “salary.” Around ten thousand years ago, dogs were first domesticated using salt; people would leave salt outside their homes to entice the animals. And of course, in all the centuries before refrigeration, salt was essential for food preservation.
And Jesus says to the crowd, this is what you are. You are precious. You are needed. You are important. We have to remember who Jesus is talking to at this moment, too. This follows right on the heels of last week’s reading. You know, the Beatitudes. Jesus is talking to the poor in spirit, those in mourning, those who long to see justice given to them. Those who are reviled. “You,” Jesus says, “you are the salt of the earth.” You are worthwhile and you have an important role to play.
This is completely descriptive language. Jesus isn’t telling the people that they need to become the salt of the earth, or the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. It’s not a command. It’s not a hope. It’s a declaration. You are salt, and you are light.
Imagine how this sounded to those gathered around him on the mountain. The poor, the lame, the bedraggled and forgotten. They probably couldn’t believe that Jesus was talking about them. You who are not cleaned up and shiny and well-fed and fashionable. You who’ve been rejected, wounded, unloved—you are essential. You are treasured. And I am commissioning you. Them—important and precious and needed! How does it sound to you today? To hear Jesus say to you, gathered here around his word: you are the salt of the earth? You are the light of the world? You, me, all of us. With our imperfect lives and flaws and struggles. You are the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth. You are crucial to God. You have an important role to play. You are needed.
It is just who you are. You haven’t earned it, because you can’t. By virtue of being God’s beloved children, you simply are salt and light. But even though we don’t have to earn it, even though Jesus simply declares that it is true, being the salt of the earth, the light of the world, it does have consequences for our lives. It’s a wonderful gift that God has given us, but it has implications for us. What does it look like to be salt? How exactly do we go about being light in this world?
An interesting thing about salt and light is that, as important as they are, they don’t exist for their own sakes. I don’t need to put salt in my cookies so that the cookies will taste like salt. The salt is there to make everything else better. To bring out all the other flavors. Eat salt alone, and all you get is a huge thirst. Stare directly into the light, and it damages your eyes. These two things that Jesus calls his followers, that Jesus calls us, exist, not for their themselves, not to be used for their own sakes, but for the difference they make to other things.
It’s not the light we want to look at—it’s the world that the light brings into vibrant focus and color. It’s not the salt we want to taste—it’s the variety and richness of the flavors already in our food that the salt brings out. When Jesus says that we are salt and light, it’s not for our own sake that he names us these things. It’s for the sake of the world. To be the salt of the earth is to lift up those around us. To enhance the lives of others. To heal, to preserve. To be the light of the world means to shine so that others might be seen. That we might shed God’s light in dark places. That we might be light and signs of hope in the midst of despair.
The other thing about salt and light, and Jesus lifts this up, is that they need to be shared. Salt does its best work when it’s poured out. When it’s scattered. When it dissolves into what’s around it. We don’t do our cooking any favors if we keep the salt-shaker locked in the cabinet. Salt isn’t meant to cluster. It’s meant to give of itself. It’s meant to share its flavor. The same with light. A lamp can’t go under a bushel basket. It will not survive. Flames don’t survive unless they have room to breathe.
If we are salt and light—and Jesus says we are—if we want to enliven, enhance, deepen, and preserve the world we live in, we have to be poured out. We have to be shared.
So on this cold winter morning, hear the promise of God: you are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. May we go forth from this place, pouring out our lives, our love, our actions as we might pour out salt on top of French fries. God has made us salt and light so that we might be shared. So that we might flavor and protect, enrich and enlighten. Thanks be to God. Amen.