Sermon, February 5, 2017
“To be the salt, you also need to be the shaker.
To shake the world. Shake the truth.
Shake the people. Shake the word.
Have it sprinkle, melt and preserve humanity.”
We listen today to the continuation of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus is teaching his disciples how to be in the world. And, Jesus loves to speak in parables – short stories or ‘word pictures’ that can sometimes seem like riddles. Throughout all the gospels, many of the things Jesus says have layered and complex meanings – for while he was speaking in front of Pharisees or Scribes or Roman guards, he was also speaking to peasants and farmers and the lost… these vastly different perspectives could often hear the same exact thing, and where one listener might hear a straightforward retelling of a lost sheep or coin, another would hear of unending love, forgiveness or abundance.
With this in mind, I spent a lot of time looking for the shadow meaning our verses today – specifically related to Salt. I mean, Salt is so meaningful to us and has so many metaphors…
· Sailor, or anything of the sea
· Salt in your wounds – swimming in the ocean with an open sore
· A salt lick
· Take it with a grain of salt
· Tasting the salt of someone’s tears
· “Worth your salt” – salt was a prime commodity in colonial times…
· Seated above the salt / below the salt
· Salty language - colorful, coarse, perhaps vulgar personality
· Power to enhance, elicit goodness from food
· Makes you thirsty
· Unhealthy… raises your blood pressure
· Power to preserve
· Power to corrode / stain / sting
· Also power to kill … salt flats of Utah, NV, CA, PR…. Salting fields in warfare …. Dead Sea
After spending so much time thinking over all these metaphors, I was quite surprised when I learned what it meant to people in ancient Israel. In this Gospel, Matthew is applying this first Sermon on the Mount to a growing Christian community… but when these words were spoken, Jesus was speaking to a purely Jewish community. And according to Jewish scholars, in Judaism Salt was a symbol of covenant, or agreement.
A covenant of salt is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible – or our Old Testament, 3 times. In Leviticus, state scripture states "every offering of your grain offering you shall season with salt; you shall not allow the salt of the covenant of your God to be lacking from your grain offering. With all your offerings you shall offer salt. A covenant of salt is also mentioned in the Book of Numbers, and Second Chronicles. Salt is also used as a symbol of covenant-making in an Arabic expression that says, “there is salt between us.”
So it seems, in all my searching of the numerous ways we think about salt in modern day, they barely scratch the surface for the real meaning – except perhaps salt as a preservative. Salt is a time proven and consistent preservative that prevents decay and corruption with enduring quality. As a purifying agent and preservative in the grain offering, salt symbolized the unending nature of the covenant between God and Israel. So salt is symbolic of a relationship or agreement that is enduring and never changing, and that’s why it’s ascribed to covenants with God. The requirements of God are eternal, long-term commitments that will abide forever, not momentary emotions or knee jerk reactions.
Salt was also used to seal a bond of friendship forever. People sharing a table would seal their friendship by the sharing of salt. Salt was how friends in ancient Israel solidified and preserved their commitment to each other by a covenant of shared salt at a table of shared community. The disciples were regularly gathered together at a shared table – and this phrasing by Jesus would cement both their commitment to God and their commitment to each other in friendship.
And then Jesus moves on to recite the prophets of Old – Isaiah, in fact – that Israel is to be a light to the nations. Light – another fantastic metaphor – can be a guide, or expose the truth, or provide comfort in the dark spaces of our lives. Israel is to illuminate injustice and despair, and illustrate a model community that lives the ways of God. This is a challenge to Israel is to “be” Israel, the people in covenant with Yahweh.
And that covenant is exactly what Jesus means by ‘the law’ when he says he has not come to abolish the law but fulfill it. Jesus was always speaking in the context of the law of the Hebrew prophets that came before him. Sometimes, in our Christian tradition 2000 years later, our Christian story starts to disconnect from the Hebrew Bible – but we must recognize that Jesus walked the earth quoting the words of Isaiah, Micah, and the other prophets before him. Whenever he referred to ‘fulfilling the law’, it was a law laid down by a prophet that came before him.
Last week, we heard Micah’s simple explanation of the law; to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. Today, we have just one of the numerous passages where Isaiah explains Israel’s covenant with God. As God’s people, they have pledged ‘to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke … to share our bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into our house…; when we see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide from our own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn…
Here Isaiah says, just like Jesus has said - when Israel fulfills these commands, it will truly be lit for all the nations to see. Isaiah details for us how to be the salt of the earth and the light of world.
But – you might ask – doesn’t the law get more complicated than that? Aren’t there rules about pork and linens and grooming and cleanliness and purity in those laws? How are we to keep them all? Because doesn’t Jesus say that our righteousness will have to exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees to enter the kingdom of Heaven?
One thing to understand is that the Pharisees and Scribes are Matthew’s villains. There is disagreement in the community where Matthew is teaching about how to interpret or reinterpret scripture in light of Jesus’s life and the crisis of the temple. Matthew disagrees with the Pharisees’ and Scribes’ interpretation of Hebrew scripture, and takes every opportunity in his story telling to tell us so. So, in some ways, he’s making fun of them – you’d have to be better than them to get into heaven.
But we can’t forget that Jesus often pointed to the difference between the rituals of the law and passion for God. The legal requirements to be Holy in ancient Israel – yearly sacrifices in the temple that could be prohibitively expensive for the poor, social rules that exiled the sick and disabled from community, Sabbath codes that would prevent someone from offering a helping hand to someone in need; often had a side effect of going against God’s covenantal agreements in the interests of outward appearances. The Pharisees and Scribes were very concerned that they appear Holy according to the legal codes, but they sometimes missed the point. Like in our passage in Isaiah; when the people cry, “why do you not see our fast and respond to us?” God says, ‘who asked you to fast’? You do these things for yourself. God seems to be mocking the people’s fasting. The fast is inconsequential because it does not relate to anyone other than the one who fasts. The Scribes and Pharisees’ righteousness is connected with observance of tradition, public displays of piety, and adherence to the letter of the law. But Righteousness of Jesus flows from his relationship with God and that is the ground of Jesus’ relationship with his followers.
Our rituals can be deeply meaningful practices. But religious ritual, when not accompanied by social action, can be self-serving and empty. And in this way, they always have the potential to become selfish and divorced from social engagement in the world. Isaiah reminds us all of the need for God’s ways to reveal themselves through relationship with others.
Which makes sense, as the Salt of the earth. Because salt, by itself, is not very useful. Neither sugar nor salt tastes particularly good by itself. Each is better through their association. Each is at its best when used to season other things.