So what, I wonder, comes to mind when we hear the key word ‘salt’ in our Gospel reading today? What connections, and what importance do they have, for us?...
Those salt and pepper pots might be an inspiration to us. For I don’t want to suggest that Christians need to look like gargoyles – or speak with squeaky voices – although some of us might do! But I do think that the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading are intended to encourage us to be like salt: that is, those who bring the fullness of flavour, including fun and enchantment, to our world.
Note well, exactly what Jesus says about salt, and about light. He doesn’t say ‘you are salt… you are light’. He says ‘you are the salt of the earth… you are the light of the world’. In other words, followers of Jesus are not called to sit quietly on the table top, or to shine brightly in a room alone. Christians are not called to personal piety, or to a life with other believers, cut off from the world around them. No! As the two striking images of salt and light express, we, as disciples, are called to be totally involved in the world, essential (like salt and light) to it. Or, in other words, we are encouraged to be bright salt pots, sharing our gifts and squeaking with the joy of God!
This is a somewhat alternative way of being spiritual to that which is sometimes thought to be properly ‘religious’. It is certainly different from that of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day and the Pharisees and Puritans of own times. For, unlike the Pharisees, who were assiduous keepers of the letter of the law and who stressed separation from the world, Jesus insists that full keeping of the law means to be like salt and light in the midst of the world. We are to be spread around freely, bringing the fullness of flavour to all God’s creation. As a great Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, once put it: ‘the Christian Church is (intended to be) an unique institution: in existing not for itself, but for others’.
So what do you think about, when you hear the word ‘salt’? The king in my opening story at first thought of salt as something trivial, even worthless, didn’t he? Is that how we are tempted to view our lives, and our possible contribution to the life of the earth, the work of God’s world?
It is very tempting, isn’t it? It is tempting to think that salt can’t play much of a part, and that our lives and efforts can’t make much of a difference…. but they do!
Salt, in Jesus’ day, was – and still remains in many places – a truly precious commodity. Indeed, in the ancient world, salt was a vital element of trade and in some places formed the currency. It was used to preserve food – absolutely essential in the days before modern refrigeration! – and for cleansing and sterilising wounds. As agriculture based societies replaced nomadic ones, it also became increasingly crucial for diet and health. Bulgarian archaeologists have indeed suggested that the oldest city in Europe was built to sustain the salt production which had begun in that area around 5400 BCE. Not surprisingly, this city was known as Solnitsata, or ‘salt works’, and it became very wealthy, serving a wide area. Today, salt is still precious: not least to our health, for we know that our bodies need salt in order to function properly; and salt continues to be vital in adding flavour to our food. For without flavour, without taste and enchantment – perhaps without squeaky voices?! – what is life? So, as the king discovered, a very little salt makes a very big difference!
All of this is very important to remember when we begin to feel that out contribution to the world seems very small and even insignificant. For I have to say that I’ve always been a little bit concerned about those Christians who are desperately anxious to turn everyone else into Christians, just like them, or who simply do lots and lots of supposed ‘Christian’ things together. Without, as it were, denigrating the need for salt production, surely the most important thing about salt – and light for that matter – is not its quantity, but its quality, and also that it is well dispersed around the meal (or, in the case of light, around the room). My former New Testament tutor and noted biblical scholar, Professor Christopher Evans, used to put this in a memorable way. Reflecting on the Oxfordshire village in which my theological college was based, he used to say: ‘the trouble with Cuddesdon village is that there are too many clergy around. For clergy’, he said, ‘ are a bit like salt. Generally they are pretty helpful, even vital at times, in small measure. Spread around, they add much flavour. But when lots of them are together for too long, the meal is ruined and the taste is horrible.’
What is true of clergy in this respect, is true of Christians in general, isn’t it? God doesn’t necessarily need lots of Christians in one place, or in one walk of life, all exercising the same ministry. God isn’t interested in empire building. God, in Jesus Christ, is interested in us helping to bring the fullness of flavour to all of creation. Of course, we must share our faith with others, but let’s not worry too much if not everyone around us, thinks, acts, or worships, the same as us. For God knows how to pour out salt on the earth – and its not like someone pouring the whole salt cellar in one go: let’s leave that to children’s pranks! Followers of Jesus, today’s Gospel is telling us – followers of Jesus shouldn’t always be sticking together in their own groups. They – we – need to be out in the rest of the world, where we can exert some influence for good in all the varieties of people and places, organisations and occupations, which make up our world.
So, today, take heart – even, and especially, if you think you are too small to make a difference; or if you think you resemble a gargoyle rather than a sophisticated salt pot; or if you think you squeak too much! God loves you, and God loves for you to make a difference, with all your quirks and squeaks! Even a tiny grain of salt is amazingly valuable. So let’s not leave the meat of our world without the salt of the earth. Let us taste, and share, God’s flavour, in Jesus’ Name. Amen.
by Jo Inkpin, for Epiphany 5 Year A, Sunday 5 February 2017