The Problem With Salt

It's time I preached some gospel again. But last Sunday's texts were more about ethics, so I'll do that, first. This past Sunday was the fifth in Epiphany, for which in the year of Matthew the NT lessons are 1 Cor 2:1-16 and Mt 5:13-20.

So let's start with the texts. A text well-translated is halfway to being preached—which is to say that these are activities which it is nearly equally hard to get right, laborious devotions of attention to the text and the audience, both of which aim to reveal the message of the text for the upbuilding of the audience. The best we can do is one message, one facet of it, for one situation. Which is what I will attempt here, today.

To that end, here's the reading from Corinthians:
And when I came to you, siblings, I did not come declaring the evidence of God to you according to the eminence of the message, or using creativity—for I chose not to know anything among you except Jesus, the Messiah, and him crucified. Using weakness and fear and great trembling, I became for you both my message and my preaching. I did not use persuasively creative speeches; instead, I used the exhibition of the Spirit and of power. Why? So that you would trust in the power of God, rather than in popular wisdom.

We do speak wisdom among those who are mature—but it is not the wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are being put out of business. Instead, we speak the wisdom of God, using mysteries. Things that have been hidden. Things God prepared for our glory before the ages. Things none of the rulers of this age know—because if they knew, then they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory! Things that, as it is written, "eye has not seen, nor ear heard; things that have not dawned upon the human mind; things God has prepared for those who love Him."

God has revealed these things to us through the Spirit, because the Spirit tracks everything, even the depths of God. Indeed, among people, who knows about a person except that person's own spirit, which is within them? Likewise, no one knows about God except the Spirit of God.

We have not received the spirit of the world, but rather the Spirit that is from God, so that we may know the favor that God has shown to us. And we do not teach this using the instructional messages of human wisdom, but rather those of the Spirit: spiritual people discerning spiritual matters together.

Mere human consciousness does not grasp the realities of the Spirit of God, for it is foolish, and cannot know that it is examined by the Spirit—but the spiritual person examines everything, and is examined by no one. For who knows the Lord's mind? Who has instructed and examined the Lord? But we have the mind of Christ!

And here's the reading from Matthew:
"You are the salt of the land. And should salt become insipid, what sort of thing will salt it? At that point it is good for nothing, but to be thrown out and trod under peoples' feet.

You are the light of the cosmos. It is impossible to hide a city situated on a hill—nor does one light a lamp and stick it under a bushel basket. But the lamp is put on its stand, and shines on everyone who is in the house. Let your light shine in this way before other people, so that they will see your virtuous deeds and glorify your Father, who is in the heavens.

Don't accept the common wisdom that says I have come to do away with Torah and the prophets. I did not come to do away with them, but rather to fulfill them! For truly I tell you that until heaven and earth pass away, not a subscript or serif of Torah shall pass away—not until everything happens. Therefore whoever breaks one of the least of these injunctions, and teaches people likewise, will be called least in the reign of the heavens—and whoever does them and teaches them, that one will be called great in the reign of the heavens. For I tell you that unless your justice vastly exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you shall not enter into the reign of the heavens."

Insipid Salt?

There are a lot of different sets of crutches that pastors pull out of the closet in order to try to say something about salt losing its saltiness. But I think it's missing the point to ground this passage from Matthew in some sort of chemical denaturing of sodium chloride. In the Babylonian Talmud, there is an answer to this that reminds me of one of the zen koans. If salt has lost its savor, with what can it be made salty again? Rabbi Yehoshua answers, "the afterbirth of a mule"—which is as impossible a thing as unsavory salt. The answer, as with whether a dog has the Buddha-nature, is wū. The question itself is wrong.

But in the gospel, the salt is not denatured at all. It does not lose an attribute. Something else happens. There's a word in both of these NT passages, used in Matthew of the salt and in 1 Corinthians of the human psyche. In English, the equivalent is "moronic." For Paul, it is literally the opposite of "wise"—of sophistication, cleverness, creativity, all of the things that the good people of Corinth prize as citizens of a civilized culture. Of course, salt is none of these things. Salt is a rock. So to call salt "stupid," to say of salt that it becomes moronic, is to say something a bit different. The French would say "épuisé," literally powerless, lacking puissance. Exhausted. It uses up all of its strength, but to no avail.

How can salt become insipid, powerless with respect to flavor and taste? The answer is in us, not in any change the rock itself undergoes. The monetary equivalent is inflation. It takes more, and more, and more of the same substance to do the same job. If it were a drug, we would call this developing a tolerance. In more mundane terms, my aunt has wondered in the past why I put salted butter on my bread before I put peanut butter on it—because isn't there already enough salt in the peanut butter? But I was raised on salted butter. Or, as we called it, "butter."

Salt Can Make Anything Taste Good

You go to a restaurant today, any of your mid-range chains, and what do you get? Food that is so laden with salt and fat that you can't taste the food itself—all in order to make you feel like you're eating something that tastes good. Alfredo sauces that don't actually taste like cheese, because they won't spend the money on properly aged cheeses when they can just feed you more salt and more fat. And if this is all you eat, if you don't know any better, it is quite likely that you have ceased to be able to taste salt itself. Just a little salt, just the right amount of salt, no longer does anything for your tastebuds.

And the worst thing about this is that, if you can't even taste salt—if you think salt is what things are supposed to taste like—you most certainly can't taste food! You no longer know what good food is supposed to taste like. And here is exactly the place we find Paul's audience. They look to be entertained. And entertainment is all about rhetorical sophistication. Of course, it is important that good things be said well. But that is important for a reason: persuasiveness does not need a good substance underneath it. It can be especially creative, especially sophisticated, to take nothing—or less than nothing!—and dress it up in the clothing of truth and beauty until it becomes itself enjoyable. And the market is saturated with this sort of tarted-up, facile vanity. Naïveté, unless it is also very well-crafted, simply cannot compete.

But Paul was not willing to pour cheap Alfredo sauce over his Christ. Jesus is not a chicken breast, that most denatured of American meats: a powerless, neutral substance to be flavored in any of dozens of ways depending on what the audience wants. Jesus is the savor of the almighty God. Jesus has a quite distinctive flavor. It doesn't go with everything. It cannot be mass-produced; it cannot even be reproduced. Only represented. Only, really, presented: "this is Christ, for you."

Learning to Taste Again

The only places handfuls of salt belong are on your driveways and sidewalks, to be trod underfoot. Salt in quantity is good for melting ice—not that I expect that the Judean countryside faced winters like we do. But you should not be eating handfuls of salt. You should not be drowning your tastebuds in salt until you cannot taste the food itself, much less the salt. Eating well isn't about the salt; it's about the food! And the only cure for this problem is to stop eating so much salt, and to learn what food tastes like again, in its simplicity. When you do this, you will eventually stop eating things that are really no good to begin with, things that only tasted good because they were disguised by the saltiness.

This is the solution for much that ails Christianity, too. You are the salt of the earth. But the church should not be about salt. We do not come to the table together to eat salt. Nor do we come to the table together to eat anything whose flavor should be disguised from us so that we will swallow it. Christ himself is our food and our drink. The Spirit of God is our sustenance.

For this reason, Paul came to Corinth refusing both salt and sauce. He came refusing to be savory by the standards of the culture. He came, as he will say next Sunday, to teach the people of Corinth how to eat again. How to taste again. To feed them spiritual basics, to teach them the joys of simple food—not as opposed to creativity, but as the only proper basis for it in the Spirit. To that end Paul came as nothing more or less than Christ himself, to teach them what the true power of God is, to let them truly taste and see that God is good.

This is not to say that salt is bad. It is to say that when salt has lost its ability to do its job, it is because there is too much of it in a given place, not too little. To much salt, and not enough food. You cannot add anything to too much salt, and make it do its job again. But sprinkle it lightly, add it in pinches rather than teaspoons, and a miracle happens: the salt disappears, and the food is magnified.

You are the salt of the earth. You can be used in many, many ways. You are good for many, many things. By handfuls you can make this frozen ground safer to walk on. But if you would feed people, if you would feed them Christ especially, if you would help people taste and see that God is good, for God's sake add yourselves to the gospel only sparingly. Let yourselves disappear, and the food be magnified.


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