“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet”
(Matthew 5:13, ESV)
In my Wednesday night class recently we were able to re-visit a familiar verse of scripture. It’s always good to re-visit familiar truths and hopefully do so more closely than before. Charles Hodge was known to say that we should always study familiar passages more closely.
Jesus used the word “salt” in other passages, with different contexts:
“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another” (Mk. 9:49-50).
“Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Lk. 14:34-35).
In these instances you will notice some similarities and yet some differences with Matthew 5:13. Only in the sermon on the mount does Jesus explicitly say that the disciples are salt. Salt apparently symbolizes a beneficial influence that the disciples of Jesus were to have in their world and on human relationships.
Jesus did not define exactly what he meant by calling his disciples salt. Exactly which properties of salt, if any, did Jesus have in mind? The nature of salt has given us free range to offer interpretations. Prominent ones are that salt seasons, purifies, preserves and makes one thirsty. It isn’t difficult to find lessons in each of those possibilities. Conceivably, the disciples would preserve society; oppose evil, infuse society with a moral antiseptic, and cause people to hunger and thirst for righteousness. Did Jesus have these things in mind? We typically believe that he did, and commentaries will focus on these qualities of salt as the main take away here.
In this passage there is a description – “You are the salt of the earth.”
Of the qualities of salt we have seen perhaps flavor is the sense here. That is, it symbolizes the power of influence. The “flavor” attributed to the disciples would come from Jesus as it the source. Apart from him they could do nothing (Jn. 15:4-5). Apart from him we can do nothing! It is because of their connection with Jesus, and the church that wears his name, that disciples of Jesus are the salt of the earth. That influence is “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27).
Salt must come into contact with whatever it influences (Jn. 17:11-18). This is where we find the “in the world but not of the world” dichotomy. We can’t force people to change, but we can make it attractive to people. Salt only works when it contacts that which it is meant to affect. With salt as wisdom we influence people by our words in our social contacts (Col. 4:6).
In this passage there is a danger – “But, if the salt loses its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored?”
What did Jesus mean when he said, “But, if the salt loses its taste (saltiness), how shall its saltiness be restored?” The difficulty here is understanding how salt can lose its taste since its chemical properties cannot change. We devote so much attention to analyzing this statement, to no profit, that Satan much surely be smiling. We butt up against the reality that sodium chloride cannot lose its chemical property any more than water can lose its wetness. As a countermeasure we affirm that the salt of Jesus’ day was not like our modern table salt. It came from the Dead Sea being mixed with many other chemicals and compounds. And if the salt is leached out it then becomes a useless mix of junk. After all of that in-depth analysis we feel that we have rescued the Lord from an embarrassing contraction so that his statement now makes sense. And, Satan, who never sleeps is laughing because we miss the point altogether!
It points to the metaphorical role of salt to symbolize influence. If a disciple loses his or her power of influence (Jesus) where else can it be found? Nowhere! The point is what happens in disciples (the spiritual salt of the earth) when and if they lose their influence. It has nothing to do with salt losing its chemical consistency and yet that is where all the commentaries lend their focus.
By comparison, a tree can become fruitless (Lk. 13:6-9); a child can depart from home (Lk. 15:11-32), and a Christian can fall from grace (Gal. 5:4). How could a disciple lose his or her saltiness? If we lose the qualities of the Beatitudes (Vss. 3-9). If we lose the inherent qualities of character mentioned above. If we learn to accommodate ourselves to the ways of the world (Jas. 4:4; 1 Jn. 2: 15-17). In these and other ways we lose our saltiness.
Finally, in this passage there is a destiny – “It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.”
This is another way of saying that a disciple can be lost! A Christian can so conduct him or herself as to lose their saltiness. In order to avoid that we need to discipline ourselves daily (1 Cor. 9:27). In some cases church discipline is necessary (1 Cor. 5:1-13). The Christian that loses faith is worse off than one who never had it (2 Pet. 2:20-22). Compare this statement to those times when Jesus spoke of some being “cast into outer darkness. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30). He is saying the same thing here.
This simple statement from Jesus is the gospel in a nutshell. Disciples (Christians) are the influence of Jesus in the world. If, however, Christians lose their influence for Jesus there is no other source from which they can have it restored. They are, therefore, in danger of being lost. We say the same thing all the time, but in different words.