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?

On the Cosmology of Fireworks

One of the great paradoxes of creation and our existence in God’s world is that many blessings are unlocked by explosive, even violent, forces. The cosmos itself is hurtling outward in a massive explosion. Here we are, living part way through that explosion.

When I consider the fireworks on the Fourth of July, I often think that each of those beautiful, fiery explosions is a miniature replica of the cosmos. Everywhere in the universe, the burning embers we call stars and galaxies glow brightly as they hurtle outward at close to one hundred million miles per hour. Yes, from one great singularity, God sent the power of His fiery, creative love expanding outward, giving life, and seeming almost limitless. The cosmos is unimaginably large, but its creator is infinitely large.

Even here on Earth, a relatively cool and stable bit of dust compared to the Sun, we stand upon a thin crust of land floating over an explosive sea of molten, fiery rock. The Book of Job says,

As for the earth, out of it comes bread; Yet underneath it is turned up as it were by fire (Job 28:5).

This fiery cauldron produces the rich soil in which we grow our very bread. The smoke and gases of the fires provide essential ingredients of the atmosphere that sustains us. The molten fires beneath us also create a magnetic field that envelops Earth and deflects the most harmful of the Sun’s rays.

Yes, all around us there is fire with its explosive violence, yet from it come life and every good gift.

To small creatures like us, God’s expansive love can seem almost violent. Indeed, there are terrifying experiences near volcanos and from solar bursts that remind us that love is both glorious and unnerving. It is an awesome thing to fall into the hands of a living God (Heb 10:31).

In some of our greatest human works, we too use violent means. The blades of our plows cut into the earth, violently overturning it. We raise animals and then lead them to slaughter for food and/or clothing. We break eggs to make omelets. We stoke fires to cook our food and warm our homes. We smelt iron and other ore we violently cut from the earth. Even as we drive about in our cars, the ignition of the fuel/air mixture in the engine causes explosions, the energy from which is ultimately directed toward propelling the vehicle.

Violent though much of this is, we do these things (at least in our best moments) as acts of love and creativeness. By them we bring light, warmth, and food. We build and craft; we move products and people to help and bless.

Yes, there is a paradoxical “violence” that comes from the fiery heat of love and creativity. The following is an excerpt from Bianco da Siena’s 14th century hymn to the Holy Spirit, “Come Down, O Love Divine”:

Come down, O Love divine,
seek thou this soul of mine,
and visit it with thine own ardor glowing;
O Comforter, draw near,
within my heart appear,
and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.

O let it freely burn,
till earthly passions turn
to dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
and let thy glorious light
shine ever on my sight,
and clothe me round, the while my path illuming
.

Fire—can’t live with it, can’t live without it. Let the fire burn; let the seemingly transformative “violence” have its way. It makes a kind of paradoxical sense to us living in a universe that is midway through its fiery, expansive explosion of God’s love and creativity.

Disclaimer: I am not affirming gratuitous violence for selfish and/or merely destructive ends. The term “violence” is used here in a qualified manner, as an analogy to convey the transformative and creative power of love phenomenologically.

>

The Fire Next Time: A Meditation on the Second Letter of Peter

The first reading for Mass this Tuesday, taken from the Second Letter of Peter, is a warning to us. There’s an old spiritual that says, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but the fire next time.” This reading today speaks to us of the “fire next time” and reminds of the need to be ready for the coming of the Lord. There are four aspects of teaching contained in the Second Letter of Peter:

1. The PATIENCE that is PURPOSEFUL – The text says, Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard “delay,” but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.

Though the Lord seems long delayed in coming (about 2000 years!), the text tells us that this is so that as many of us can be saved as possible.

Notice that the text says that God wants us to come to repentance. His patience should not be viewed as an excuse for presumption but rather as an opportunity for repentance. This is no time to be saying, “I’ll do it later.” This is a time to be serious about repentance and to prepare to meet the Lord.

Note, too, that the Greek word here translated as repentance is μετάνοιαν (metanoian), referring not just to better behavior but also to new mind. Our transformation is not merely external but internal as well. When what we think changes so does our behavior. When our thinking is conformed to God’s revealed truth, our priorities, feelings, desires, and decisions all begin to change. Conversion and repentance are the results of being a transformed human being with a new mind.

2. The PASSING that is PERILOUS – The text says, But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.

In effect, this says that God’s gonna to set this world on fire one of these days, and when He comes it’ll be

Sudden, for the text says that the Day of the Lord will come like a thief. This is a consistent image that Jesus used for the Day of Judgment as well, but it should not be true for us who wait and watch. St. Paul says, But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief …. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled (1 Thess 5:4,6).

Further, the image of the thief is also not appropriate for us if we realize that all we have and all we are belongs to God. For those who are worldly and claim authority over themselves and ownership over their possessions, God is a thief who comes suddenly and in a hidden way. He overtakes their apparent ownership and puts an end to it. To them He seems like a thief because He “steals” what they consider to be theirs. They are badly misled.

For us who watch and are prepared (pray God), the Lord comes not to take but to give, to bestow upon us and reward us as we inherit His Kingdom.

Shocking, for the text speaks of roaring heavens and fire that overwhelms, dissolving everything.

Here, too, although the image is shocking it should not alarm us if we are already on fire. At Pentecost (and personally at our baptism and confirmation), the Lord lit a fire within us to set us on fire spiritually, to bring us up to the temperature of glory. Thus, for those in the Lord, the “weather” on that day will seem just fine.

The prophet Malachi speaks of the twofold experience of the Day of the Lord in this way: “Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. Notice therefore, that for some the Day is burning with wrathful heat, but for the Just, it is a sunny day wherein the Sun (Son) of righteousness will bring warmth and healing (Mal 4:1-3).

An old spiritual gloss on this verse says, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no water but the fire next time.” Thus, God wants to get us ready by setting us on fire with His love and grace. If God is a holy fire, then we must become fire ourselves to be able to endure the day of His coming.

Showing, for the text says that all things will be revealed.

This fire burns away the masks that many people wear, exposing them for what they are. The Lord says,

But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken (Matt 12:36).

There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs (Lk 12:2-3).

Now even the just may wince at this, for all have a past and would prefer that the past stay in the past. However, when I’ve visited 12-Step meetings I’ve noticed that many of the recovered attendees will recount vividly what they did when they were drinking. They seem to do so with little shame and much laughter, for they share it with those who understand, and as ones who have been set free from the source of the problem. Perhaps the disclosing day will be like that for the just. For the unrepentant, however, imagine the fear and embarrassment as their secrets, sins, and injustices are disclosed to those who are also unforgiving and unmerciful. It’ll be a bad scene, really.

3. The PRESCRIPTION that is PROCLAIMED – The text says, Since everything is to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be? You ought to conduct yourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire …. Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.

The text asks, rhetorically, “What sort of persons ought you to be?” The answer, in a word, is “fiery.” God has lit a fire in us to purify and refine us. Hence on that day, when the Lord will judge by fire, we will pass through. Though some final purification (purgation) may take place, the fact that the fire has been kindled in us and fanned into flame, will mean just that: purification, not destruction. St. Paul describes the just as going through the purgatorial fire that leads to purification rather than to destruction in Hell: If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his 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 man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames (1 Cor 3:12-15).

So, the prescription for us is to let God set us afire now to purify us, making us more holy and devout. The fire of His Holy Spirit is the only thing that can truly prepare us and permit us to endure the day of His coming and to be spared the “wrath to come” (cf 1 Thess 1:10, Matt 3:7, Romans 5:9; 1 Thess 5:9), when God will judge the world and everything in it by fire.

4. The PERFECTION that is PROMISED The text says, But according to his promise we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

This text presents the possibility that the created world will not so much be destroyed as purified by God’s fiery judgment. While it may also signify the total destruction of all that now is and a replacement of it with new heavens and a new earth, some posit that it means that the created world will instead be renewed. This view would correspond with other texts such as Romans 8 (For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom 8:20-21)) and Isaiah 1.

Whatever the answer to the debate, the bottom line is that the new (or renewed) world will be a heaven wedded to earth in which the full righteousness of God will be manifest. Further, we will be without blemish and at peace.

Yes, God’s gonna set this world on fire one of these days, Hallelujah! God’s fire purifies that which is holy and burns away all that is lacking or unholy. God will restore all things in Christ!

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!

 

A Brief Meditation on the Fiery “Violence” of Love

One of the great paradoxes of creation and our existence in God’s world is that many blessings are unlocked by explosive, even violent forces. The very cosmos itself is in a kind of process of hurtling outward in a massive explosion. And here we are, living midway (?) through that explosion.

When I see fireworks on the Fourth of July, I often think that each of those beautiful, fiery explosions is a miniature replica of the cosmos. Everywhere in the universe, the burning embers we call stars and galaxies glow brightly as they hurtle outward at close to one hundred million miles per hour. Yes, from one great singularity, God sent the power of His fiery, creative love expanding outward, giving life, and seeming almost limitless. The cosmos is unimaginably large, and yet its creator is infinitely large.

Even here on Earth, a relatively cool and stable bit of dust compared to the Sun, we stand upon a thin crust of land floating over an explosive sea of molten, fiery rock. The Book of Job says,

As for the earth, out of it comes bread; Yet underneath it is turned up as it were by fire (Job 28:5).

This fiery cauldron produces the rich soil in which we grow our very bread. The smoke and gases of the fires provide essential ingredients of the atmosphere that sustains us. The molten fires beneath us also create a magnetic field that envelops Earth and deflects the most harmful of the Sun’s rays.

Yes, all around us there is fire with its explosive violence, yet from it come life and every good gift.

To such small creatures like us, God’s expansive love can seem almost violent. Indeed, there are terrifying experiences near volcanos and from solar bursts that remind us that love is both glorious and unnerving. It is an awesome thing to fall into the hands of a living God (Heb 10:31).

We, too, in some of our greatest works, use violent means. The blades of our plows cut into the earth, violently overturning it. We raise animals and yet lead them to slaughter for food and clothing. We break eggs to make omelets. We stoke fires to cook our foods and warm our homes. We smelt the iron and other ore we violently cut from the earth. Even as we drive about in our cars, the ignition of the fuel/air mixture in the engine causes explosions, the energy from which is ultimately directed toward moving the vehicle.

Violent though much of this is, we do these things (at least in our best moments) as acts of love and creativeness. By them we bring light, warmth, and food. We build and craft; we move products and people to help and bless.

Yes, there is a paradoxical “violence” that comes from the fiery heat of love and creativity. The following is an excerpt from Bianco da Siena’s 14th century hymn to the Holy Spirit, “Come Down, O Love Divine”:

Come down, O Love divine,
seek thou this soul of mine,
and visit it with thine own ardor glowing;
O Comforter, draw near,
within my heart appear,
and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.

O let it freely burn,
till earthly passions turn
to dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
and let thy glorious light
shine ever on my sight,
and clothe me round, the while my path illuming
.

Fire—you can’t live with it, can’t live without it. Let the fire burn; let the seemingly transformative “violence” have its way. It makes a kind of paradoxical sense to us living in a universe that is midway through its fiery, expansive explosion of God’s love and creativity.

Disclaimer: Gratuitous violence for selfish and/or merely destructive ends is not affirmed in this post. The term “violence” is used here in a qualified manner, as an analogy to convey the transformative and creative power of love phenomenologically.