Anglican Church of Canada
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany February 5, 2017
There is an old Italian folktale about a king who had three daughters. He called them together and asked them how much they loved him. The older two went on and on about how they loved him more than gold and fine jewels, more than life itself. The youngest daughter said simply, “You are as dear as salt to me.” The king flew into a rage that she valued him as little as common salt, and banished her from the kingdom.
So the daughter went to a neighbouring kingdom and got a job in the kitchen. As these things happen in folk tales, eventually the prince noticed her worth, and fell in love with her. They invited all the neighbouring kings to the wedding, including, of course, our heroine’s father, who didn’t know the bride was his daughter. At the banquet, they served him food with no salt. Again the king flew into a rage that they would serve him such tasteless food. Then the bride revealed herself to him, and reminded her of her words to him. There was a moving reconciliation, and they lived happily ever after. The king had learned a valuable lesson: to call someone salt is high praise indeed.
So when Jesus calls us the salt of the earth, he is saying something important, he is telling us that we have a role to play in this world that would be sorely missed. Which is not necessarily the way we are used to thinking of ourselves.
Of course the phrase “salt of the earth” is a familiar one. It was a common expression in another generation: “those people are salt of the earth”, meaning they are good simple folk, honest and reliable. Used to be, that was the highest praise you could give someone. “Salt of the earth” in this sense is a very good thing to be – but I don’t think that is quite what Jesus means by the expression.
Remember that Jesus is actually not speaking to us, to the church, at least not directly. Because the church didn’t exist yet. This comes at the beginning of his ministry, when he had called a small group of disciples to follow him; scarcely a church yet. It comes in the Sermon on the Mount, as he addresses a large crowd of people who have come to hear him. So the people he is actually speaking to are his countrymen, to Jews of the first century.
The Jewish people and religion at that time was at a crossroads, as they struggled to make sense of their destiny living under Roman rule, and scattered throughout the empire. There were many active reform and renewal movements afoot. The Pharisees were the most prominent of these: a reform movement that advocated a return to the roots of Jewish identity by practising the Law: observing kosher, meeting in the synagogue, studying the Scriptures. And keeping themselves separate from the rest of the world: keeping their heads down, if you like, in order to survive. It proved to be a remarkably successful strategy. It kept the Jewish faith and the Jewish people alive and distinct for the next two thousand years.
But when Jesus says, you are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world, he is offering an alternative program for the Jewish people. A vision, rooted in the prophets, of a people called to play a role among the nations, called to be a witness to God’s presence. Jesus is echoing the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
to restore the tribes of Jacob
and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
These words were not originally addressed to the church, because the church did not yet exist. It happened the other way around: the church emerged from these words, and others like them. Out of this call to be salt of the earth, light of the world, the apostles went out to all nations, and called people to join their community of witness. And so we as the church are heirs to this call; it is in our very DNA to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world.
I’m not sure that always sits well with us. We are modest people, we want to be good neighbours and not rock anyone’s boat. We have come to think of our faith as a private thing, something we do for ourselves, something we wouldn’t want to parade in public, for fear of offending anyone. All of these are understandable motives, and good as far as they go. But they leave us with a vision of faith not unlike the Pharisees: keep our heads down, do our faith here on Sunday morning, don’t disturb the neighbours. So how are we supposed to be salt of the earth?
Sometimes, the way we break up the Bible into Sunday morning segments means we lose touch with the bigger picture. In this case: Jesus’s words about salt and light follow immediately after last week’s reading, from the Beatitudes. And I believe they are closely connected: when Jesus calls us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, he is calling us to practise the Beatitudes.
A couple of months ago I talked about the Beatitudes as the B-attitudes, the flip-side to the soundtrack of the world, where the world’s values are turned on their head. In the midst of a world where brashness and boastfulness and the quest for power are rewarded, and the voices of anger and selfishness are getting louder, we are called to live by another script. We are called to be meek, and pure of heart, gentle and generous in our dealings with others. We are called not be afraid to mourn, to grieve the pain of this world. We are called to share the spirit of the poor, their resourcefulness and sense of community. We are called to hunger and thirst for justice in this world, to keep that hunger alive as long as there is injustice. We are called to be peace-makers.
That is what it means to be salt and light for this world, to continue quietly to practise these values that Jesus taught us, and Jesus lived for us. Not by loudly proclaiming Jesus’s name which our neighbours must accept – that is just more of the way of the world, more of the brash sell and power grab. God knows, poor Jesus’s name is being taken in vain enough in the world today, used to sell all kinds of ideas that are the very opposite to what he taught.
Let us learn better to be salt for the community around us. When used properly, salt does not overwhelm our food with its own flavour, so all you taste is salt; rather, it brings out the flavour of the food itself to its best advantage. Jesus doesn’t send us to our neighbours to make them just like us, to make the whole world Anglican – though if they are moved to join us, great. But our real mission is to live the values of the Beatitudes in a way that brings out the best in those around us, that calls forth and encourages their gentleness, their thirst for justice, their capacity to care for the weak and disadvantaged, their patience to seek peace and reconciliation.
There are days when I wonder about the point of the church – I suspect all of us feel the same from time to time. When I look at this small handful of people huddled together in our building – and a few other handfuls of people huddled in other buildings in our community – while the world goes on around us, living and loving and fighting, buying and selling and playing golf – some days you wonder what the point of us being here is, whether we make any impact on the world around us. But then I think of what a world would look like where the Beatitudes are no longer practised, where everything is given over to self-interest and boastfulness and indifference to the poor and needy. And I think: not only is that a cold and inhuman world, it is a horribly boring and bland world. So let us continue to be salt, to be that sharp and different flavour of the Beatitudes, that stands up against the blandness of self-interest, and calls forth the best and most human in those around us. That is what we are here for. We are God’s beloved, dear as salt. But if we lose that distinctive flavour, if we end up acting and sounding just like the world around us, then there really is no point to us being here; then we are good only to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.