By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
We heard the Beatitudes last Sunday. The text for today picks up where we left off. We’ll focus on the opening verse, “You are the salt of the earth.”
It’s a simple image – no ambiguity, no hidden meanings, nothing out of the ordinary; just common, everyday salt. Like the parables, Jesus uses a simple, concrete object to teach the people a profound lesson about the kingdom of heaven.
In this case, the meaning is clear: Just as a pinch of salt unlocks the flavor of, say, a whole pot of stew, so can a small band of believers transform the world around them into the kingdom of God.
He could’ve taken the metaphor in a number of directions. For example:
• Before refrigeration, salt was used as a preservative. It killed the bacteria and kept the food from going bad.
• In much the same way, salt is an antiseptic. It hurts like the dickens to throw salt on an open wound, but it kills the germs.
• It’s also a fertilizer. Don’t ask me how this works, but, in small quantities, the same chemical that kills bacteria can make things grow.
• In ancient days, salt was used as currency, a form of exchange. It’s the root of our word, “salary”. It’s what we mean when we say a man’s worth his salt.
• Finally, the Old Testament refers to God’s covenant with Israel as a “salt covenant.” (2 Chronicles 13:5)
Jesus could’ve used salt in a number of ways, but he didn’t. He stuck with what we all know: A little salt brings out the flavor and makes otherwise bland food savory and delicious.
I tried to get this across in a children’s sermon years ago and fell flat on my face. I brought a saltshaker from home and, after getting all the children comfortably seated in a circle, I poured a little salt in the palm of my hand and asked, “What do I have here?” A little boy sitting next to me said, “That’s salt.” And I said, “You’re exactly right, so what can you tell me about salt?” He didn’t bat an eye. He said, “If you eat too much, it’ll kill you.” So much for that idea.
What I’d like to explore in the sermon this morning is how the image of salt can help us become the salt of the earth we’re called to be – salty Christians, if you will.
Let’s begin with a simple truth: Salt works best when it dissolves into the food. Except for pretzels and popcorn, the point is not to eat the salt, but to eat nourishing food lightly seasoned with salt.
What this says to me is we’re not to call attention to ourselves, but to work quietly behind the scenes.
As an example of what not to do, Jesus told his disciples not to give alms to the poor in such a way that others see you and know what you’re doing and it becomes all about you. Instead, he said, “Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand does” (Matthew 6:3).
The children at church camp got a taste of this one summer. After they arrived and got settled in, the counselors met with their living groups and explained a little game called, “Secret Friends.” There were six boys and six girls in each group. The children drew each other’s names to see who their secret friend for the week was going to be. The object of the game was to do nice things for their secret friend without getting caught.
It turned out to be great fun. A kid would come back to the cabin after breakfast to find that someone had made his bed for him. Or a kid would look in his duffle bag and find a Coke or candy bar. The campers found all sorts of ways to surprise their secret friends without leaving a trace of evidence.
The moment of reckoning came at the end of the week. The counselors went around their groups and asked each camper to guess who their secret friend was. Some guessed right. Most had no clue. They all enjoyed the game and, of course, they received a lot of love and affirmation in the process.
Here’s the problem: Summer church camp only lasts a week, and it only includes a relatively small group of children and youth. Just imagine what the world would be like if every Christian of every age in every corner of the world took upon himself the role of a secret friend and did nice things for others routinely – not just close friends or fellow church members, but others across the board – without saying anything about it, much less expecting any sort of recognition or reward. As the song goes, “What a wonderful, wonderful world that would be.”
Going back to the analogy, salt works best when it’s dissolved. You can’t see it, but, as anyone on a bland or salt-free diet will tell you: You know it’s there.
Salty Christians are those who blend into the fabric of the community and make a difference. They make the world around them a better place in which to live without calling attention to themselves.
The trick is to blend in without losing your identity as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Reinhold Niebuhr called this “being in the world, but not of the world.” (Christ and Culture)
You see the problem: If you stand too far apart from the world around you, others are apt to see you as an oddball – pious, perhaps, but out of touch. If you stand too close, you’re apt to be seen as one of the crowd – just another happy heathen. One commentary put it this way:
“Citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven
impact society because they are different
(not weird or bizarre, but distinct) from the Kingdom of this World.
When salt and light try to accommodate…the Kingdom of this World,
they lose their distinctiveness and their potential to (make an) impact.”
Salty Christians are those who are able to enter into the mainstream of culture without being assimilated into it.
The term for this is, “syncretism.” It’s what happened to the people of Israel, time after time. Instead of keeping a respectable distance, they intermarried with other tribes and adopted such practices as erecting Asherah poles and worshiping other gods. In time, they were no different from all the others.
They weren’t the only ones. The early Christians in Laodicea did the same thing. They blended into the culture to such an extent that they no longer bore witness to the gospel. They’re one of seven churches mentioned in the Book of Revelation. This is what Jesus said to them:
“I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot.
I wish you were cold or hot.
So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold,
I will vomit you out of my mouth.”
Salty Christians live in the world without becoming of the world. They’re able to interact with the power brokers of the community, as well as rub shoulders with common folk, without losing their distinctive Christian witness. It’s not easy. It’s tempting to go with the flow.
One of my elders in Odessa used to put this in a poignant way. He’d ask, “If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”
Would others know you’re a disciple of Jesus Christ if you didn’t tell them? In what way are you different from the world around you? How is what you say and do shaped by your faith in Jesus Christ? Is there anything you intentionally won’t do because you’re a Christian?
That’s the dilemma Eric Liddell faced in the 1924 Summer Olympics. He was a world-class sprinter from Scotland and everyone’s pick to win the gold medal in the 100-meter race. But when the events were scheduled, the 100-meter race fell on a Sunday.
Eric Liddell was the consummate gentleman, anything but a showboat. He was also a devout Christian and uncompromising in his faith. He informed the committee that he would not compete on the Sabbath. They tried to reason with him – after all, it’s The Olympics, they pleaded – but he wouldn’t budge.
He finally agreed to a compromise. He’d compete the next day in the 400-meter race. It wasn’t his forte, but he’d give it a go. Sure enough, he not only won the gold medal, but set a new world record in the process. Plus, he came home with his faith in tack.
Salty Christians are known by what they do – and what they won’t do – as well as what they say. They walk the walk, as well as talk the talk.
You don’t have to be on the world stage to know what this means. Just turn on the TV … or go to the movies … or pick up a book or magazine. It’s up to you to decide what’s healthy and appropriate for a disciple of Jesus Christ. It’s up to you to put Christ first.
And lest you forget, others are watching. The choices you make not only speak volumes about what’s important to you, they have an influence on others, one way or the other.
Let’s wrap it up. Jesus gave his disciples a promise: “You are the salt of the earth.” But, with it, came a warning:
“… if the salt has lost its flavor, with what will it be salted?
It is then good for nothing, but to be cast out
and trodden under the feet of men.”
At first blush, this sounds ominous for those of us who tend to lose our saltiness, from time to time. Is there any hope for a second chance? The answer is yes! Here’s why.
The people of Jesus’ day got most of their salt from the area around the Dead Sea. The problem was it was often polluted with other minerals.
Plus, unlike mining salt from the earth, the salt around the Dead Sea was exposed to the elements and was diluted by the sunshine, wind and rain. Over time it lost its flavor and was used on roadways, much like we use limestone powder today.
So, while it’s true that, if salt loses its flavor, it’ll never be salty again, the Good News is that the gospel goes beyond the analogy. When common, ordinary Christians like us lose our savor, our saltiness can be restored.
How? By turning from the influence of the secular world and turning, once more, to Christ – to repent, in other words – and seek forgiveness and open our hearts to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Like the Good Shepherd in search of the lost sheep, there’s always hope for redemption, no matter how far we stray, or how often.
In her Bible study, Breaking Free, Beth Moore uses a simple exercise to illustrate God’s forgiveness and love.
She asks two volunteers from the audience to come up on stage. One represents a rank-and-file Christian; the other, God. She gives them a length of rope and has them stretch it out between them. As she talks about the life of a Christian and how we get busy and preoccupied with worldly affairs, she cuts the rope in two. The relationship is severed.
As she ties the rope back together, she explains how God is always willing to forgive us and reconcile us to himself, if we’re willing to turn to him.
She goes on to talk about how that works for a while, but how, in time, whether it’s the busy-ness of our hectic lives or the reality of our sinful nature, we again turn from Christ and his kingdom. She cuts the rope. Again, the relationship is severed.
She repeats the cycle several times – sinning and repenting, sinning and repenting – each time tying the ends back together. Can you see what’s happening? Each time she reties the loose ends, the rope gets shorter and shorter.
Our willingness to own up to the ways we’ve turned from God and humble ourselves and seek forgiveness and ask for another chance draws us closer and closer to the throne of God’s grace and love.
As for the rope – which is our lifeline – it may end up full of knots, but it connects us all the same to God. No one knew this better than Joseph Hart, who wrote:
Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity, love and power.
Let not conscience make you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requireth
Is to feel your need of Him.
The refrain says it best. May it echo our own faithful response:
I will arise and go to Jesus,
He will embrace me in His arms;
In the arms of my dear Savior,
O there are ten thousand charms.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2014, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.