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Sunday, February 9, 2014

The virtues of a high-salt diet

To download a podcast of my sermon for today, click here.

I LOVE today's Gospel passage (Matthew 5:13-20).  Partially because I love metaphors, but mostly because I love salt.

Jesus makeS two metaphorical statements in today's Gospel passage.  He calls his followers "the salt of the earth" and "the light of the world".

That first statement is an epithet we apply to people to this day.  It is used vaguely to describe someone who is humble, reliable, simple, self-effacing...it is a compliment we bestow on a good, solid human being.

But why?

What does salt have to do with human character?

To understand what this passage means and where it comes from, we need to know a little bit about the history of salt as it has been used by mankind.

Salt has long been held in high regard by humanity, despite modern calls to eat less of it.  Its uses historically were not all related to food, however.  The ancient Egyptians used salt to mummify bodies, salt has long been known to have certain antiseptic effects (to this day, what do we do for a sore throat?), its ability to preserve food has been understood for thousands of years in the form of salting meat and making pickles.  Salt had almost magical properties, and has long been a treasured commodity in the civilized world.

And of course, it makes food taste better.  Many an otherwise insipid meal has been rescued thanks to a few dashes of salt.  It seems that this is the context in which Jesus wants us to consider salt: "If salt has lost its saltiness..."

But here is the funny think about salt.  It is not an end in and of itself.  Think of it in terms of food: salt makes food taste better, but it does not taste particularly good itself.  You don't sit down to a heaping bowl of salt.  You don't say "Boy, that meatloaf really brought out the taste of your salt.".  Salt has one quality: it is salty.  If it were no longer salty, it would have lost its defining characteristic.

Salt, in other words, is not the main event.  It is not the showpiece.  It enhances something else.

Similarly, Jesus employs another metaphor when he talks about light.  "You are the light of the world", he says.  Here is the funny thing about light: its only useful purpose really is to let us see the things around us clearly.  Physicists may debate me, but light seems to have no tangible or at least useful qualities (at least insofar as your average human being is concerned) until it hits something and reflects into our eyes, allowing us to see.  Otherwise, you cannot put light in a jar, in your pocket, buy it or sell it.

So we are salt and we are light.  What does that mean to us?

To understand this a little more clearly, we need to understand that Jesus is leveling a criticism at the Pharisees, as he so often did.  He came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it, he says.  And he tells us that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees.

The problem with the Pharisees was that they used the Law to judge, to indict, to condemn, to elevate them selves and to put other beneath them.  That is not what the Law was for.  The Law was put in place to ensure harmony with your neighbour and with God, but the Pharisees had perverted the Law until it had become a meaningless exercise devoid of any real spiritual value.

Kind of like food without flavour.  Kind of like food without salt.

In a roundabout way, Christ seems to be calling us to a life of humble spirituality, not one which is proud and curmudgeonly like that of the Pharisees.  Jesus seems to be telling us that faith is not an end in and of itself, but something that enhances our lives.  Our faith, in other words, is only useful if it points us to God and towards compassion, mercy and justice.  Anything else is a pretty insipid meal indeed.

Similarly with light: we are called to be the light of the world, to shine light into the dark corners of the earth, to bring light into the lives of those who live in darkness.

So we are salt and light after all.  We are called to bring flavour, to bring light, to bring joy, compassion, love, justice, mercy...all the things that make life truly worth living after all...into the world.

So today, be a light and add some salt.

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