What Does Jesus Mean When He Says We Must Be Salted with Fire?

The Gospel from Thursday’s daily Mass featured one of Jesus’ lesser-known teachings:

Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if salt becomes insipid, with what will you restore its flavor? Keep salt in yourselves and you will have peace with one another (Mark 9:49-50).

Let’s begin with a few observations about salt in those times.

  1. Salt was valuable. Some people were even paid with salt (which is where we get the word “salary”).
  2. Salt was connected with healing and purity. Saltwater was applied to infections and wounds (it helps heal afflictions of the skin). Newborn babies were washed with saltwater.
  3. Salt was connected with preservation. In the years before refrigeration, salt was one of the most common ways of preserving meat and fish.
  4. Salt was connected with flavor. Salt adds spice to life; it brings out the flavor in food.
  5. Salt was an image for wisdom. Gregory the Great said, “Now by salt is denoted the word of wisdom. Let him therefore who strives to speak wisely, fear greatly” (Pastoral Rule 4.12).
  6. Salt was connected with worship and covenant. Scripture says, Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings (Lev 2:13). So, the use of salt was ordered first for the meal offerings, and afterwards for “all” offerings, including the “burnt offering.”
  7. Scripture speaks elsewhere of a “covenant of salt.” For example, Don’t you know that the LORD, the God of Israel, has given the kingship of Israel to David and his descendants forever by a covenant of salt? (2 Chron 13:5) The covenant of salt refers to the imperishable and irrevocable quality of the engagement made between the two parties to the covenant.
  8. The use of salt to signify and ratify what was sacred was widespread. There is a Latin saying attributed to Pliny the Elder (and Virgil, too), Nulla sacra conficiuntur sine mola salsa (Sacred things are not made without salted meal).

To apply the image of salt to the Christian life, we should see that the Christian is charged with purifying, sanctifying, and preserving this wounded and decaying world by being salt to it. The Christian is called to bring flavor to life in a world that is so often filled with despair and meaninglessness.

With that background, let’s turn to an analysis of Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Mark.

1. Everyone will be salted with fire. Two images of salt and fire come together here, but the result is the same: purification. We have already seen how salt purifies. Fire does the same thing through the refining process. Precious metals come from the ground admixed with iron and many other metals. Subjecting them to fire purifies the gold or silver, separating it from the iron and other metals.

Both salt and fire purify by burning, each in its own way. Hence the Lord marvelously brings those two images together, telling us that we will all be “salted with fire.”

Indeed, it must be so. We must all be purified. Scripture says of Heaven, nothing impure will ever enter it (Rev 21:27). St. Paul speaks of purgatorial fire as effecting whatever purification has not taken place here on earth:

If anyone builds on this foundation [of Christ] using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—yet as one escaping through the flames (1 Cor 3:15-15).

The Book of Malachi also reminds us of our need to be purified, to be “salted with fire.”

But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver (Mal 3:2-3).

Yes, we must all be salted with fire. We must be purified, both here, and if necessary (as it likely will be), in Purgatory.

2. Salt is good, but if salt becomes insipid, with what will you restore its flavor? In other words, we must let the salt of God’s grace have its effect or else we, who are to be salt for others, become flat, tasteless, and good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot (cf Matt 5:13).

If the salt will not be salt, there is no substitute for it. Jesus asks rhetorically, if salt becomes insipid, with what will you restore its flavor? There is no substitute for Christians. If we will not be light, then the world will be in darkness. If we will not be salt, then the world will not be purified, preserved, or have anything good or tasty about it at all. The decay of Western culture has happened on our watch, when we collectively decided to stop being salt and light.

3. Keep salt in yourselves and you will have peace with one another. In other words, allow the salt, the purification, to have its effect. Only if we do this will we have peace with one another.

Our divisions and lack of peace are caused by our sins. Thus, to accept the purification of being salted with fire is our only true hope for peace. When the Lord burns away my envy, I no longer resent your gifts; I rejoice in them and come to appreciate that I need you to complete me. In this way there is peace. When the Lord burns away my jealousy and greed and helps me to be grateful for what I have, I no longer desire to take what is rightly yours nor do I resent you for having it. In this way there is peace. When the Lord burns away my bitter memories of past hurts and gives me the grace to forgive, an enormous amount of poison goes out of my soul and I am equipped to love and to be kind, generous, and patient. In this way there is peace.

Yes, allowing ourselves to be salted with fire is a source of peace for us. And while we may resist the pain of fire and salt, just as with any stinging medicine we must learn that although it is painful it is good for us. Yes, it brings peace; it ushers in shalom.

Everyone will be (must be) salted with fire!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: What Does Jesus Mean When He Says We Must Be Salted with Fire?

The Lord Hath Given a Well-Trained Tongue – A Homily for the 23rd Sunday of the Year

The Gospels do not simply tell us stories of people who lived thousands of years ago; they tell us our story, and this Sunday’s Gospel is no different. We encounter a deaf man with a speech impediment living in a pagan land; this man represents each of us. If you are prepared to accept it, you are also Jesus, for His story and His work are largely yours as well.

Let’s look at today’s Gospel, remembering that it is our story.

I. The PLACE of the Gospel. The text says that Jesus went into the Decapolis region. This was an area of ten Gentile (pagan) cities. While there were some believers living there, most did not believe. In other words, Jesus was in a largely unbelieving region.

For us who live in the West, this atmosphere of unbelief describes our culture, too. Notice that Jesus does not hesitate to engage with the unbelieving culture in His time and neither should we. Something drew Him there. What was it? Was it love? Was it zeal?

What is it that keeps us engaged and sends us forth to draw in our increasingly pagan—indeed worse-than-pagan—culture? Is it patriotism? Is it love of God and truth? What motivates you to engage family, friends, and neighbors?

Regardless of where He was, Jesus did not hesitate to proclaim the Gospel. He didn’t simply wait until things were comfortable or the timing was opportune. He proclaimed the Gospel in season and out of season, in friendly lands and in hostile ones, whether He was praised or persecuted. What about us?

II. The PROBLEM that emerges. A man who is deaf and has a speech impediment is brought to Jesus. Frankly, this describes many of us. In the midst of an increasingly unbelieving culture, many of us have become deaf to God’s truth, and because of that deafness we have the speech impediment of being silent in the face of sin and unbelief.

Some of our deafness is because we haven’t heard. Many people were never properly catechized. Sadly, too many of our pulpits, whether the literal ones in churches or the figurative ones in our homes, have been silent. In a certain and very real sense, we have a deafness that has never heard the Word of God.

Some of our deafness, however, is acquired, for though our ears were opened at our baptism, we haven’t listened; we’ve been stubborn. Sometimes there is outright rejection of the Word, but even more frequently it is a case of selective resistance. We are like the teenager who only half-listens to his parents. We “tune out” when we are confronted by less appealing aspects of God’s Word. We think to ourselves, “There goes that preacher again. I understand he has to say stuff like that but come on.”

At least partially because of this deafness, we also have a speech impediment. Those who have never heard have a hard time speaking well. The Gospel today seems to link the deafness with the speech impediment.

There are other causes of a speech impediment when it comes to faith. For example, half-hearted listening leads to half-hearted witness or no witness at all. Lukewarm faith can lead us to remain silent even as we see the world around us falling into decay. St. Paul said, Because I believed, I spoke out (2 Cor 4:13). Because our faith is not strong, we say little, and, frankly, we have little to say.

Another cause of a speech impediment is fear. We are so terrified of what people might say or think that we say nothing at all. The martyrs went to their deaths for the proclamation of the faith, but we are afraid of a few raised eyebrows!

Yes, we are a fearful lot, and that fear is rooted in a desperate and unbalanced need to be liked, to fit in, and to be accepted. Well, we need to get a grip now, because the age of the martyrs may be returning—and if our faith is not strong, we will not be strong.

III. The PROCESS. Jesus is not interested in running a carnival side show. He takes the man away alone to heal him, apart from the crowd. Let’s examine several aspects of this healing.

It is PERSONAL. It is personal in two senses. First, He ministers to the man in a way that respects his dignity. Whatever the causes of his deafness and speech impediment, his healing must be a personal walk with the Lord Jesus. Yours must be as well. Jesus is not interested in making a spectacle of you. He heals you for your own sake. If one day you or I should choose to make a witness of our healing, fine, but that is not why the Lord heals us; He heals us for our own sake because He loves us. Second, the healing is personal in that it is a way of teaching us that it is easier to wear slippers than to carpet the whole world. In other words, the healing of the world can begin with us. It is too easy for us to wait and hope that God will raise up the next Fulton J. Sheen—but what if the Lord wants to take you aside? What if He wants to speak to you? What if He wants you to get your fingers out of your ears? What if He wants to heal your deafness so that His Word is heard loud and clear?

It is PICTURESQUE. There are images at work here. There are the fingers in the ears as if Jesus is placing His words in the man’s ears, opening them to God’s Word. The text says that Jesus, spitting, touched the man’s tongue. It’s as if to signify, “from His mouth to yours.” Jesus puts His own words into our mouth. There is also the command, “Be opened,” as if to say, “Open your mind; open your heart,” and thus, “Open your ears; open your mouth.” The problem is not merely a physical one of stopped ears or a lame tongue. The problem is mental and spiritual as well: a closed mind and a closed heart. Thus, the Lord says, simply and without qualification, “Be opened.”

The healing is PURE. The text says that when the man’s ears were opened, and his tongue was loosed, “He spoke plainly.” The Greek word used here is ὀρθῶς (orthos), meaning straight, without deviation, true, or correct. It is the root from which we get the English word “orthodoxy.” This is important because we don’t need eloquent heretics. We need eloquent true believers, people who have heard the true and whole Word of God and are ready to articulate what He says rather than some fake or incomplete version. Give us true prophets, O Lord, not false ones, who tell us only what we want to hear or who give us only part of the truth.

IV. The PROCLAMATION. The text reports ironically, Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone. But the more he ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it. They were exceedingly astonished, and they said, “He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

What, is the Lord kidding? He has healed a man so that he can hear and can speak the Word clearly and then tells him to be quiet! Scholars may differ on the interpretation, but I believe that the Lord is being intentionally ironic and “tongue in cheek” when He says, smiling, “Not a word to anyone now!”

When you’ve experienced really good news it’s hard to stay quiet!

What is your story? How has the Lord opened your ears? How has He enabled you to hear and understand His Word in your life? How has He loosed your tongue to speak His Word? I am a witness. I was once a shy and poorly catechized young man. Frankly, I wasn’t interested in the things of God, but He took me aside. He put His word in my ear, loosed my tongue, and now can’t get me to shut up. Yes, He has done all things well!

Here is a final question for you: How has Jesus used you to unstop the ears of the deaf, communicate His word, and liberate the tongues of others? Perhaps He has used you as a parent, catechist, priest or religious, choir member, lector, or leader. Here, too, I am a witness. Thank you, Lord, for using me to impart knowledge, to unstop ears and place your Word there, and to loose tongues. Thank you, Lord. You have done all things well, even through me.

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Two Teachings on Discipleship from Jesus

In the Gospel for today (Monday of the 13thWeek of the Year) Jesus gives two teachings on discipleship. They are not easy, and they challenge us—especially those of us who live in the affluent West.

Poverty– The text says, As they were proceeding on their journey someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”

Here is a critical discipline of discipleship: following Jesus even if worldly gain not only eludes us but is outright taken from us.Do you love the consolations of God or the God of all consolation? Do you seek the gifts of God, or the Giver of every good and perfect gift? What if following Jesus gives you no earthly gain? What if being a disciple brings you ridicule, loss, prison, or even death? Would you still follow Him? Would you still be a disciple?

In this verse, the potential disciple of Jesus seems to have had power, prestige, or worldly gain in mind. Perhaps he saw Jesus as a political messiah and wanted to get on the “inside track.” Jesus warns him that this is not what discipleship is about. The Son of Man’s kingdom is not of this world.

We need to heed Jesus’ warning. Riches are actually a great danger. Not only do they not help us in what we really need, they can actually hinder us! Poverty is the not the worst thing. There’s a risk in riches, a peril in prosperity, and a worry in wealth.

The Lord Jesus points to poverty and powerlessness (in worldly matters) when it comes to being disciples. This is not merely a remote possibility or an abstraction. If we live as true disciples, we are going to find that piles of wealth are seldom our lot. Why? Well, our lack of wealth comes from the fact that if we are true disciples, we won’t make easy compromises with sin or evil. We won’t take just any job. We won’t be ruthless in the workplace or deal with people unscrupulously. We won’t lie on our resumes, cheat on our taxes, or take easy and sinful shortcuts. We will observe the Sabbath, be generous to the poor, pay a just wage, provide necessary benefits to workers, and observe the tithe. The world hands out (temporary) rewards if we do these sorts of things, but true disciples refuse such compromises with evil. In so doing, they reject the temporary rewards of this earth and may thus have a less comfortable place to lay their head. They may not get every promotion and they may not become powerful.

Thus “poverty” is a discipline of discipleship.What is “poverty”? It is freedom from the snares of power, popularity, and possessions.

Jesus had nowhere to rest his head. Now that is poor. However, it also means being free of the many obligations and compromises that come with wealth. If you’re poor no one can steal from you or threaten take away your possessions. You’re free; you have nothing to lose.

Most of us have too much to lose and so we are not free; our discipleship is hindered. Yes, poverty is an important discipline of discipleship.

Promptness (readiness)The text says, And to another he said, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

The Lord seems harsh here. However, note that the Greek text can be understood in the following way: “My Father is getting older. I want to wait until he dies and then I will really be able to devote myself to being a disciple!”

Jesus’ point is that if the man didn’t have this excuse, he’d have some other one. He does not have a prompt or willing spirit. We can always find some reason that we can’t follow wholeheartedly today because. There are always a few things resolved first.

It’s the familiar refrain: I’ll do tomorrow!

There is peril in procrastination. Too many people always look to tomorrow. But remember that tomorrow is not promised. In Scripture there is one word that jumps out repeatedly; it’s the word now. There are many references to the importance of now or today rather than tomorrow:

  • Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD (Isaiah 1:18).
  • behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor 6:2).
  • Today if ye will hear his voice, Harden not your heart (Ps 95:7).
  • Boast not thyself of tomorrow; for you know not what a day may bring forth (Prov 27:1).

That’s right, tomorrow is not promised! You’d better choose the Lord today because tomorrow might very well be too late. Now is the day of salvation.

There is an old preacher’s story about delay: There were three demons who told Satan about their plan to destroy a certain man.The first demon said, “I’m going to tell him that there is no Hell.” But Satan said, “People know that there’s a Hell and most have already visited here.” The second demon said, “I’m going to tell him that there is no God.” But Satan said, “Despite atheism being fashionable of late, most people know, deep down, that there is a God, for He has written His name in their hearts.” The third demon said, “I’m not going to tell them that there’s no Hell or that there’s no God; I’m going to tell them that there’s no hurry.” And Satan said, “You’re the man! That’s the plan!”

Yes, promptness is a discipline of discipleship. It is a great gift to be sought from God. It is the gift to run joyfully and without delay to what God promises.

Here are two disciplines of discipleship. They are not easy, but the Lord only commands what truly blesses. There is freedom in poverty and joy in quickly following the Lord!

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What Does Jesus Mean When He Says We Must Be Salted with Fire?

The Gospel from  Thursday’s daily Mass featured one of Jesus’ lesser-known teachings:

Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if salt becomes insipid, with what will you restore its flavor? Keep salt in yourselves and you will have peace with one another (Mark 9:49-50).

Let’s begin with a few observations about salt in those times.

  1. Salt was valuable. Some people were even paid with salt (which is where we get the word “salary”).
  2. Salt was connected with healing and purity. Saltwater was applied to infections and wounds (it helps heal afflictions of the skin). Newborn babies were washed with saltwater.
  3. Salt was connected with preservation. In the years before refrigeration, salt was one of the most common ways of preserving meat and fish.
  4. Salt was connected with flavor. Salt adds spice to life; it brings out the flavor in food.
  5. Salt was an image for wisdom. Gregory the Great said, “Now by salt is denoted the word of wisdom. Let him therefore who strives to speak wisely, fear greatly” (Pastoral Rule 4.12).
  6. Salt was connected with worship and covenant. Scripture says, Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings (Lev 2:13). So, the use of salt was ordered first for the meal offerings, and afterwards for “all” offerings, including the “burnt offering.”
  7. Scripture speaks elsewhere of a “covenant of salt.” For example, Don’t you know that the LORD, the God of Israel, has given the kingship of Israel to David and his descendants forever by a covenant of salt? (2 Chron 13:5) The covenant of salt refers to the imperishable and irrevocable quality of the engagement made between the two parties to the covenant.
  8. The use of salt to signify and ratify what was sacred was widespread. There is a Latin saying attributed to Pliny the Elder (and Virgil, too), Nulla sacra conficiuntur sine mola salsa (Sacred things are not made without salted meal).

To apply the image of salt to the Christian life, we should see that the Christian is charged with purifying, sanctifying, and preserving this wounded and decaying world by being salt to it. The Christian is called to bring flavor to life in a world that is so often filled with despair and meaninglessness.

With that background, let’s turn to an analysis of Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Mark.

1.  Everyone will be salted with fire. Two images of salt and fire come together here, but the result is the same: purification. We have already seen how salt purifies. Fire does the same thing through the refining process. Precious metals come from the ground admixed with iron and many other metals. Subjecting them to fire purifies the gold or silver, separating it from the iron and other metals.

Both salt and fire purify by burning, each in its own way. Hence the Lord marvelously brings those two images together, telling us that we will all be “salted with fire.”

Indeed, it must be so. We must all be purified. Scripture says of Heaven, nothing impure will ever enter it (Rev 21:27). St. Paul speaks of purgatorial fire as effecting whatever purification has not taken place here on earth:

If anyone builds on this foundation [of Christ] using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—yet as one escaping through the flames (1 Cor 3:15-15).

The Book of Malachi also reminds us of our need to be purified, to be “salted with fire.”

But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver (Mal 3:2-3).

Yes, we must all be salted with fire. We must be purified, both here, and if necessary (as it likely will be), in Purgatory.

2.  Salt is good, but if salt becomes insipid, with what will you restore its flavor? In other words, we must let the salt of God’s grace have its effect or else we, who are to be salt for others, become flat, tasteless, and good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot (cf Matt 5:13).

If the salt will not be salt, there is no substitute for it. Jesus asks rhetorically, if salt becomes insipid, with what will you restore its flavor? There is no substitute for Christians. If we will not be light, then the world will be in darkness. If we will not be salt, then the world will not be purified, preserved, or have anything good or tasty about it at all. The decay of Western culture has happened on our watch, when we collectively decided to stop being salt and light.

3.  Keep salt in yourselves and you will have peace with one another. In other words, allow the salt, the purification, to have its effect. Only if we do this will we have peace with one another.

Our divisions and lack of peace are caused by our sins. Thus, to accept the purification of being salted with fire is our only true hope for peace. When the Lord burns away my envy, I no longer resent your gifts; I rejoice in them and come to appreciate that I need you to complete me. In this way there is peace. When the Lord burns away my jealousy and greed and helps me to be grateful for what I have, I no longer desire to take what is rightly yours nor do I resent you for having it. In this way there is peace. When the Lord burns away my bitter memories of past hurts and gives me the grace to forgive, an enormous amount of poison goes out of my soul and I am equipped to love and to be kind, generous, and patient. In this way there is peace.

Yes, allowing ourselves to be salted with fire is a source of peace for us. And while we may resist the pain of fire and salt, just as with any stinging medicine we must learn that although it is painful it is good for us. Yes, it brings peace; it ushers in shalom.

Everyone will be (must be) salted with fire!