t is interesting which pieces of wisdom you remember from your parents. My mom is a wonderful cook and growing up, she would give us little cooking and baking lessons. One such lesson was on the importance of using a little bit of salt when baking bread. “Don’t forget the salt, otherwise the bread will taste flat,” she would remind me. I had no idea what she meant by that until years later I made some bread for myself and forgot to add the salt. Sure enough, the bread tasted flat, lacking the depth and richness of flavor found in a homemade loaf. Now whenever I go to bake bread, I find myself reciting her words in my head as I reach into the cupboard for the carton of salt, “don’t forget the salt, otherwise the bread will taste flat.”
It is amazing what a little bit of salt can do—a universal seasoning that makes food taste better! In fact, if you ever take a look at the ingredient lists in the food that you buy in the grocery store, it is truly astounding how much of our food contains salt—it would be easier to list the food that is salt free. What’s more, we crave salt, enjoying foods such as potato chips, French fries, and popcorn mostly for their service as a vehicle for salt.
Salt is seemingly simple ingredient, and we have a complex relationship with it in our modern world. But it can be difficult for us to wrap our heads around what Jesus meant when he said, “you are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world.” How do we identify with salt? How do we relate ourselves to the saltshaker that sits in our kitchen? Because when Jesus spoke these words to those gathered at Sermon on the Mount, I don’t think that he was saying that they were an excellent addition to soup. I don’t think Jesus meant that his followers were a leading cause of high blood pressure.
The problem is that the role of salt has changed radically in our world in just the last couple of hundred years; the weight of Jesus’ words is lost on us today. To understand what he meant, we need to understand the role that salt played in Jesus’ time and for most of human history. To do this, we need to imagine a time before electricity had been harnessed, before we had developed industrial processes, and before we had figured out how to conduct large-scale mining operations.
Though we think of salt as a ubiquitous and cheap item, hiding away on the bottom shelf in the grocery store, for most of our history it was a scarce and limiting resource. While there were a few places where salt crystals were found on top of the ground, waiting to be plucked up, and other places where salt deposits came close enough to the surface of the earth that humans could easily access it, most salt came from sea water—a slow process that relied on the sun or on the use of a burnable fuel to dry off the water. It was slow and it was expensive. If you didn’t live near the ocean where you could make it yourself, you had to trade for salt. In fact, salt trade was once big business, driving massive economic empires. Cities that we still know today, such as Venice, owe their rise to prominence due to salt.
Without access to salt, rulers would lose their grip on their subjects. Without salt, populations could not grow, wars could not be fought, colonies could not be founded, soldiers could not be paid, and exploration could not happen. Why? It is simple, without salt, food could not be preserved. Before the invention of refrigeration and modern canning techniques, salt was the primary way by which food could be stored up, transported, and saved for times when fresh food was scarce. Put simply, salt was required for the preservation and sustenance of life; without salt, you would starve to death.
This is important, because it means that for our sisters and brothers who first heard Jesus speak these words, salt was not a pleasant seasoning to be used sparingly, salt was life. Jesus stood, surrounded by the crowds who had come to hear him preach that day, and he proclaimed to them the Good News, “You are the salt of the earth; by you the world is preserved and sustained. You are the salt of the earth; by you life is given and shared. You are the salt of the earth, by you the world is fed.”
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commissions all of us to be salt for the world. As Jesus’ disciples, we are called to preserve and sustain the world, to be a life-giving presence for all of God’s children. We witness this fundamental, sustaining action every week as we are all invited by Christ to come and be fed at the table that God has set for us, but it extends far beyond the walls of this sanctuary.
My friends, you are the salt of the earth, and you sustain the world in your prayers and your worship. You are the salt of the earth, and you preserve the world through your acts of love and justice. You are the salt of the world and you feed the world through your work in Harvest House, in the food we collect every week for the food bank, and in the meals we share together. My sisters and my brothers, you are the salt of the earth, and our work is not done until all of creation echoes with God’s invitation to “Come and be fed.”
Preached by Adam Yates