In the Gospel today (Tuesday of the 10th week) the Lord describes metaphorically what a Christian is and what He expects of us.
You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the World … But if salt goes flat it is good for nothing … No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket.
Note the metaphor of salt: You are either salt, or you are nothing—in fact, good for nothing. It’s very much an all-or-nothing scenario. Jesus says that if you’ve decided to be my disciple you’re either going to do that or be nothing. You may go on to be a doctor, lawyer, teacher, laborer, or social worker. But the Lord has plenty of those (and so does the devil). Your first and only mission is to be a true and uncompromised Christian; everything else is commentary. You may be a great doctor, but if you don’t do it as a clear and visible Christian you’re nothing. You may be a skilled social worker, but if you don’t do it as a Christian, you’re good for nothing. Any non-believer can be socially useful as a doctor, actor, lawyer, or social worker. But only a Christian can be a Christian. If you don’t do “job one,” you’re nothing. If you buy your kids every good thing, send them off to college (paid in full), but don’t bring them to Christ by being a Christian witness to them, you’re good for nothing. Parents can give their kids material things, but only Christians can give them Christ. Got it? You’re either salt (a true Christian) or you’re nothing.
The text speaks of salt going “flat.” What this meant historically is rooted in the fact that salt at that time was typically less pure than it is today. Impurities often interacted with the salt, and over time it became bitter in taste. It was then good for nothing except to become pavement. But what does it mean to be salt?
Let’s consider some of the properties of salt:
Salt seasons. Christians are called to add spice to life; to bring beauty, joy, and hope to the world. Joy is the surest sign of a Christian. Even our keeping of the commandments is a source of joy as we experience God’s power to put sin to death in us and to bring forth order, self-discipline, and holiness. Hope, too, ought to distinguish us from a world that is often cynical and thinks that sin is inevitable. To this world we are not only to declare that keeping the commandments is possible and brings joy, but we are to demonstrate it in our very lives. We are to be zesty, passionate, alive, and free from sin in Christ. Yet, sadly, we Christians are known more for what we are against. Too many Christians are not spicy; they do not really add flavor; they are more like bored believers, depressed disciples, fearful faithful, and frozen chosen. In our best moments, though, look what spicy things the faith has contributed: art, music, churches, hospitals, universities, the scholastic and scientific methods, and holidays (a mispronunciation of Holy Days). Note how our tradition and our scriptural teachings of justice mercy, love, and the dignity of the human person have blessed the world. Do you bring spice to the lives of others? Do you bring hope and joy? Scripture says, Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you (1 Peter 3:15). Well that means that people must notice a hope in you! Do they? How?
Salt preserves. Before refrigeration, people often used salt to cure or preserve meat. The salt killed the bacteria and other microorganisms that caused rot and decay. As Christians, we are called to prevent further decay in this sin-soaked world. The truth that we proclaim is meant to preserve people from the decay of sin and overindulgence. Chastity, justice, generosity, the proclamation of the truth, etc. are like salt that preserves the world from decay. We must be salt; if we are not then nothing else is. You are the salt.
Salt heals. In the ancient world, salt was used on wounds. It helped to stop bleeding; it killed bacteria and prevented further infection. So, too, the Christian faith. Through our doctrinal and moral teaching—and our living of it—we are called to bring healing to this world, which is wounded by sin, strife, war, jealousy, anger, bitterness, retribution, promiscuity, unfaithfulness, greed, and countless other errors. The Word of God and His plan are healing medicine for what ails this world.
Salt burns. Yes, salt stings when applied to wounds. We Christians aren’t just sugar and spice and everything nice. When salt is applied to wounds it burns and often causes loud protest. The truth stings, and the truth of the Gospel can be irritating to a world that is wounded by sin. But despite the protests of the world, the sting is a healing one. It is driving out the bacteria and disease of the world and preventing further infection. Just because people protest the Church and howl in complaint at the truth of the Gospel does not mean that we have done anything wrong. The protests often mean we are doing exactly what we must.
Note finally that the Lord says you are the salt of the earth. He did not say you are the salt of the Church. For salt to be effective it has to get out of the shaker! Too many Christians are bold in the pew but cowardly out in the world. They will speak of the faith in the relative security of the Church and among certain friends. But don’t ask them to preach to their spouse or co-worker, or even to their children. That’s too scary. And don’t even think about asking them to knock on doors, or go to the local mall and witness, or stand in front of an abortion clinic.
Salt in the shaker is useless. It has to come out of the shaker to make any difference. You don’t salt salt. Witnessing to fellow Christians may have a limited benefit, but it is not really the true destination of salt. The salt has to go forth. When the priest or deacon says that the Mass is ended and to go in peace, he might as well be holding up a salt shaker and shaking it.
In tomorrow’s post, we’ll consider the Lord’s image of light.