The Great Compliment: you are the salt of the earth!

The Great Compliment: you are the salt of the earth!
Matthew 5: 13 – 20
I am proud of this church. You have a reputation for being friendly, generous in spirit and welcoming. Last week a number of the folk from the U3A art exhibition spoke of your welcoming and generous spirit. The exhibition seems to have been a success. Your response to those who exhibited added flavour to the occasion, thank God for that and God bless you.
Jesus paid his followers a great compliment naming them the ‘salt of the earth’. He paid us (you) a great compliment, as ‘we are the salt of the earth’.  In the ancient world salt was highly valued. From time to time salt has been used as a form of currency. The word salary (salarium) comes from Latin word for salt (sal).  The Romans had a little jingle, Nil utilius sole et sale  – “there is nothing more useful than sun and salt”.  Salt was valued for its preserving, purifying and flavouring capacities.
Salt is composed of sodium and chlorine.  It is essential to our health; body cells must have salt in order to live and work. It is a purifier; it has antiseptic or germ-killing properties. It is a preservative. It adds flavour to many foods. And it is estimated that there are more than fourteen thousand uses for salt.
Salt is a purifier. No doubt its glistening whiteness has encouraged such a connection.  
According to historians, salt at one time had religious significance and was a symbol of purity.  The association of salt with purity leads to the ability of salt to make things pure.  Salt cleanses and heals. We use salt solutions to cleanse wounds. Saline solutions are used in swimming pools. Salt has antiseptic and germ-killing qualities.
Jesus gave his followers this cleansing and healing role. We are to have an ‘antiseptic’ role in the world. The act of loving our neighbour is partly a cleansing and germ-killing exercise. Love is the ‘antiseptic’ that kills hate and the purifier of untruth. That is what Christian love achieves: the destruction of hate and the restorer of truth.
Salt is a preservative.  In a time when there was no refrigeration, canning or freeze-drying, salt was used to conserve food. Salt continues the life of foods well beyond their normal use by date. No wonder it was so highly prized. No wonder it, in certain periods of history, had a currency alongside that of precious metals. It would be better at times to have salt in your hand than gold. 
To liken Christ’s followers to salt is to say that they act as a preservative in society. The implications are that Christians will conserve what is good, maintain what is good and sustain what is good. The Christians’ witness in word and deed today builds a foundation for the future. We know that it is easier in some company to do good than in other company and visa versa. We know that values and beliefs are such that certain things are either permitted or not. 
Salt adds flavour:  Its absence weakens and limits our health. Its presence adds value and flavour to our living.  Food without salt can be bland. An appropriate amount of salt enhances the flavour. We don’t add salt to taste salt; we add salt to enhance taste.
We know that salt melts ice.  Christ-like love melts human icy-ness between people bringing reconciliation.  Unfortunately Christianity has been a depressor of joy at times.  Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “I might have entered the ministry if certain clergymen I knew had not looked and acted so much like undertakers.”  Robert Louis Stevenson once entered in his diary, as if he was recording an extraordinary phenomenon, “I have been to Church today and I am not depressed”.
The Church has been at the cutting edge of care for the sick and compassion for the poor adding hope and comfort to those in need. The church has been the main purveyor of music in the Western world for many centuries.  The Bible resounds with music and song in praise of God.  Scholars note that the mark of the first Christians was their joy – a joy that let them face persecution with love, hope and joy. Paul wrote and commended the Colossian Christians for their faith, love and hope. [Col 1: 3-5] A thankful person adds sunshine to the conversation and Christians are to be thankful and full of praise in all circumstances [1 Thess 5:18]. In so being Christians add positive flavour to life.
Salt is a sign of Friendship.  Among some peoples, salt is still used as a sign of honor, friendship and hospitality. The Arabs say ‘there is salt between us,’ meaning ‘we have eaten together, and are friends’ (The World Book Encyclopedia, 1978, 17:69).  This notion of salt as the seal and sign of friendship and agreement is expressed at a number of points in Scripture.  There are more than thirty-five references to salt in the scriptures. The Old Testament mentions covenants sealed with salt.
You shall not omit from your grain offerings the salt of the covenant with your God; with all your offerings you shall offer salt. [Lev 2:13]
All the holy offerings that the Israelites present to the LORD I have given to you (the priests), together with your sons and daughters, as a perpetual due; it is a covenant of salt forever before the LORD for you and your descendants as well.  [Numbers 18: 19]
Do you not know that the LORD God of Israel gave the kingship over Israel forever to David and his sons by a covenant of salt? 2 Chron 13:5]
Jesus’ great compliment plays an important part in his revolutionary message. Jesus introduced a revolution in religion. When Jesus goes on to talk about his followers being light in the world and that our lives should be superior to the behaviour of the Scribes and Pharisees, he is introducing revolutionary thoughts.  The Scribes and the Pharisees were the interpreters and exemplars of the faith. And the faith was expressed by following a strict code of behaviour commonly called a ‘holiness code’. It governed every part of life including the bedroom, dress, the kitchen and life in general.  E.g. The strict orthodox Jewish wife moves to a separate bed when she menstruates. Some Jewish homes have two kitchens to keep certain foods apart. A ‘holiness code’ is common to most religions. Christians have them. You will remember the churches that didn’t permit dancing or consumption of alcohol or the wearing of lipstick. I was with a Scottish colleague of mine on Tuesday. He told us that when he was younger he was talking to a member of a conservative branch of the Presbyterian Church. He mentioned that he had had a cup of tea with a certain minister the Sunday before.  The woman exclaimed, ‘you had tea with Mr … on Sunday. Wasn’t it cold.’ You see their particular brand of Presbyterianism banned work on a Sunday, which included boiling a kettle for tea. The woman was horrified that this revered minister had taken tea on a Sunday with with my friend.
I would like to point out that a ‘holiness code’ can strengthen one’s faith and can build up a community. I do not doubt its benefits. But it can be practised in such a way that it is controlling and stultifying. That is what Jesus found.  A ‘holiness code’ may ensure our identity in such a way that it excludes others. Jesus wanted his followers to go out into the world and live by grace and be salt in the world.
The parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 [vv. 25-37] illustrates this well. When Jesus explains what it means to love your neighbour he uses the example of a Samaritan. Jesus contrasts the Samaritan, a non-Jew, with a Priest and Levite who fail to love their neighbour. [Lk 10: 29-37] The Priest thought the man lying on the side of the road might be dead.  He knew that if he touched a dead person he would be ritually impure and be prohibited from doing his duties for seven days [Numbers 19:11]. So he avoided the man. The Levite might have had safety concerns, for thieves sometimes set up a decoy like that, and he quickly moved on. The Samaritan had the courage to love and was generous with his wealth. The Samaritan to Jesus is the example of what it means to be the salt of the earth, not the religious rule-keeper.
The great danger is that when a people feel threatened they retreat into a defensive position. The problem in holding strictly to a code might help you keep your identity, but it also builds a wall between you and others. Those Jews who slavishly followed their holiness code have kept their identity but largely remained isolated. Jesus wanted his followers to take God’s Word to the world. To do so he set them free from a slavish following of law and gave them an understanding of grace – love given freely to others – so that they would be salt and light to the world. That is precisely what they did. And the first Christians grew and influenced those around them. They grew and influenced the Greco-Roman society until the Church became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
What lessons can we learn from those first Christians? When we are threatened by violence, terrorism, countless refugees we tend to build walls of defence in one way or another. Today tribalism, nationalism and protectionism are on the rise. Unfortunately this approach will imprison us and destroy our sense of being part of the world. There is the lesson – the challenge. We are the salt of the earth. Our task is to cleanse, preserve and flavour life about us. If we don’t we will become useless to God, ourselves and others.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  02/10/2016