Salt of the Earth

Image

Pavel Ševela [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Introduction

I have a question:

If I offered you a container of pure salt as a snack, would you enjoy it?  No, probably not.  What if I offered you salted potato chips instead?  That’s more like it.  Salt only tastes good when it’s seasoning something else.  It’s not very good by itself.

The thing about salt is that it is only useful because of the effect it has on other things.  Salt is useful because it seasons food, melts ice, and preserves meat.

Jesus has a lot to say about salt in today’s New Testament reading.  He says, “You are the salt of the earth.”  This morning, we’re going to focus on that phrase

You

But first, we should clarify just who it is that we’re talking about.  Who is the salt of the earth?  Jesus says that it’s “you.”  Who exactly is he talking about?  On the most general level, we could say that he’s speaking to all of us.  That’s certainly true.  But it’s also true that Jesus was speaking to and about a specific group of people when he first said these things.

In the text of Matthew’s gospel, these statements appear immediately after the Beatitudes, which we talked about last week.  Most of the Beatitudes are written in the third person (i.e. “they”), but the last one shifts to the second person: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  In the very next sentence, Jesus continues: “You are the salt of the earth…”

It seems pretty clear then that Jesus is talking to the same group of “blessed” people.  And who were they?  Remember from last week: the blessed ones are the unsuccessful and unlucky, the poor and oppressed, the ones regarded as failures in the eyes of the world.  Jesus called them “blessed” and “prophets.”  These are the same people he’s addressing here.

Earth

As we’ve said already, salt and light are only good because of the effect they have on other things.  In this passage, the other thing that is being affected by “you” (the salt) is the earth itself.

Preservative

As we’ve already said, salt is a preservative for meat when there is no refrigeration technology available.  So, according to Jesus, there is some way in which despised and forgotten people help to preserve something important about the world.  I believe that it is spiritual awareness.

Ordinary Awareness

The level of ordinary awareness is the one we human beings are trained to operate on most of the time.  This is the level of rational consciousness that has allowed our ancestors to survive and thrive for millions of years.  On the level of rational awareness, we develop an internal distinction between subject and objectI (subject) exist separately from and am able to interact with my environment (objects).  This leads to the further cognitive distinction between cause and effect.  When I commit action A, result B happens.  Over time, I (subject) am able to interact with my environment (objects) in ways that produce positive results for me.  Generally speaking, this kind of rational consciousness has been very good for our species.  It has allowed human beings to survive, grow, and eventually become the dominant species on this planet.

But it has a downside:

When our ordinary awareness is the only way we understand and interact with reality, we miss a lot.  We become obsessed with ourselves and our own success.  We become ruthless.  We learn to despise weakness and failure.  And this is just fine until each one of us is eventually overcome by old age, sickness, or injury.  If we have learned to leave others for dead when that happens (“for the good of the herd,” we say), then we can be sure that others will one day do the same to us.  Our neighbors can really only ever be our competitors under such circumstances.  It’s eat or be eaten, kill or be killed, stay ahead of the person next to you or else you will be the one who is left to the predators.

Spiritual Awareness

I believe there is another way to live.  When we cultivate a spiritual awareness within ourselves, we come to realize the inherent oneness of reality.  You and I are interconnected with each other as parts of an inseparable whole.  We need each other.  As Martin Luther King said, “We are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality.  What affects one directly, affects all indirectly.  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Body of Christ

We in the Christian tradition have several powerful images that express this truth.  Most potent of all is our belief in the Body of Christ.  We Christians are not isolated individuals practicing our faith apart from one another.  St. Paul famously wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, “just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”  One part of the body cannot say to another, “I don’t need you.”  Paul continues, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.  Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

This truth is demonstrated most beautifully in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  In our sharing of the one bread and one cup, we remind ourselves that we also share one spiritual body, with the same spiritual blood flowing in our veins.  From a certain point of view, we are the same person and that person is Christ.  Therefore, we are called upon to care for one another in times of need as we would care for ourselves, even as we would care for Christ himself.  As Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

The neediness of our poor, oppressed, and suffering neighbors presents us daily with an opportunity to actualize this spiritual awareness (i.e. Christ consciousness) in ourselves.

Solidarity & Liberation

I should note that I’m not trying to idealize poverty, suffering, or oppression.  There is nothing inherently good or spiritual about those things.  I believe it is our task, as people of faith, to reach out and alleviate those things wherever we find them.  My point is that it is those who work in solidarity with the oppressed who discover with them the path to spiritual insight and mutual liberation from suffering.

It is in this process of awakening that we discover that our lives are full of dignity and meaning.

Conclusion

The reality of our existence is that we are connected to each other as inter-dependent parts of the whole.  We lose sight of this truth when we live only out of our rational consciousness on the ordinary level of awareness.

Jesus calls the weak and despised ones of the world “blessed,” “prophets,” and “salt of the earth” because they preserve our awareness of the truth that there is more to life than that which can be measured in terms of productivity and usefulness.  They keep us from spoiling and going rotten from the inside out.

As we work together in compassion and solidarity with the oppressed, we begin to awaken to our Christ consciousness on the spiritual level of awareness.  We come to realize the truth that we really are one in Christ, as members of the same body.

Let us continue our work together, then, as partners.  Let us continually call others to join us in this task, so that all may rejoice together on that day when the salt of the earth seasons our lives, melts the ice on our hearts, and compassion reigns supreme on the earth.

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