The Romans had the saying, “Nil utilius sole et sale.” There’s nothing more useful than sun and salt. They believed that salt was the purest element of the earth because it came from the most basic components of creation: sun and water. Plutarch said that meat was a dead body and would decay, but that when salted and dried it was given a new soul.
Salt was the most common preservative. Not having refrigeratin, meat and fish were salted and could be stored for long periods of time. Every once in a while, friends of mine treat me to a dinner of homemade baccalao, salted cod fish. So, we’re still using salt as a preservative today. But let’s face it, is there anything worse that a salt-free meal? Salt is a gift from sun and water, and it makes life so much better.
There was another use for salt. This is foreign to us but important for us to understand. In the ancient world only the wealthy enjoyed the luxury of a personal oven. Communities shared an outdoor oven. They were made of stone, fired up and kept going for long periods of time so that the families of the village could make use of them. The inside of the oven was lined with packed salt that provided excellent insulation and efficiently retained the heat. The salt would have to be changed periodically as it would corrupt from the heat and would be thrown onto the pathways.
We’ve put together a few ideas about the use of salt during Jesus’ time. Now, let’s think about the meaning of his statement to us: “You are the salt of the earth.”
The disciple is called to make life taste good. Our relationships must be respectful, supportive,caring and filled with joy. The work that we do must be honest and true. It must be performed with care and caring for the good of the human family.
Thinking about the salt used in the communal ovens Jesus may have imagined the commitment and endurance necessary to be a disciple. He spent his life selflessly giving himself to the people who were like “sheep without a shepherd.” He would eventually pour out his life on the cross, emptying himself in love. Following his example, Jesus asked his disciples to burn themselves out in love and ministry.
Salt was the purest element and essential to life. I would think Jesus was telling us, that as his disciples we, too, must be pure and essential to life. In the sermon on the mount he said, “How happy are the pure of heart for they will see God.” When we hear the word “pure” we generally think about sexual behavior, but that doesn’t capture the enormity of this teaching. To be painfully practical, we’re living in a society that has abandoned the purity of the truth. Phrases that wage war against truth like “fake news” and “alternate facts” ring out every day, it seems. Jesus was asking his disciples to stand in opposition to the world – to maintain purity of heart.
The authentic disciple must never loose sight of Jesus standing before Pontius Pilate. His words should ring in our ears. “I came into the world to bear witness to the truth and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.” Pilate’s closed heart tragically responded: “What is truth?”
There are many Pilates in positions of power throughout the world. Today, each and every disciple is called to stand in contradiction to them. We offer the life that truth brings. Some among us who are called to a prophetic ministry may meet the same fate as Jesus. But through us, the truth will continue to reach out, offering life, offering healing, offering a vision of a new world. As his disciples we must never forget his words to us. “You are the salt of the earth.”