The Double Loss of Being Good for Nothing

In the Office of Readings for this past Sunday (20th Sunday of the Year), we read St. John Chrysostom’s meditation on what it means that we are “the salt of the earth.” I would like to ponder his teaching in three stages.

The Dignity

Do not think, he says, that you are destined for easy struggles or unimportant tasks. You are the salt of the earth (Mat 5:13). What do these words imply? Did the disciples restore what had already turned rotten? Not at all. Salt cannot help what is already corrupted. That is not what they did. But what had first been renewed and freed from corruption and then turned over to them, they salted and preserved in the newness the Lord had bestowed. It took the power of Christ to free men from the corruption caused by sin; it was the task of the apostles through strenuous labor to keep that corruption from returning [St. John Chrysostom, Hom. 16:6,7: PG 57, 231-232].

Christ has restored fellow human beings to life, freeing them from corruption, sin, and death, and He has entrusted them to the Church’s care. This is a high honor, a great dignity, but it is also a tremendous responsibility.

Consider well, especially if you are a parent or a pastor, that God has entrusted the care of immortal souls to you. He says that we are to be salt, which is an image of preservation from corruption. How do we do this? By living holy lives for others, preaching the gospel, teaching true doctrine, pointing to Christ, celebrating the sacraments, correcting error, praying, and fasting.

It is a high calling, but it is not easy an easy one. None of us should undertake such tasks lightly or without regard for the sacrifices that will be necessary. We will ultimately be judged by what we do or fail to do in this regard. If we fail, it will be a double loss, because both we and those we are called to preserve will be lost.

The Danger

If others lose their savor, then your ministry will help them regain it. But if you yourselves suffer that loss, you will drag others down with you. Therefore, the greater the undertakings put into your hands, the more zealous you must be. For this reason, he says, But if the salt becomes tasteless, how can its flavor be restored? It is good for nothing now, but to be thrown out and trampled by men’s feet (Mat 5:14-15) [Ibid].

If we lose our savor, it is not that we are merely diminished in our capacity. No, it is worse: we become good for nothing. Bringing souls to Christ through teaching and baptism is our primary job. Fulfilling less-important duties does no good if we are not doing our most important job. Consider that a store manager may have great communication skills and a friendly disposition, but if he isn’t selling product none of it matters. We may be pleasant people, highly competent in our careers, and even generous to the poor—but even pagans can do this. If we’re not advancing the Kingdom and seeking to win souls or ensure their spiritual stability, we are good for nothing. It’s a double danger because we risk not only our own souls but the souls of others.

In our times, we have seen the Church fall into this sort of danger. We put so much effort into promoting ourselves as being welcoming, pleasant, and tolerant, that many of us have compromised the gospel, either by silence or through outright deception. Only salt itself can preserve, not salt substitutes. Only the true gospel can save, not a false or diminished one. Only the real Jesus can save, not some fake one.

The danger is that we who are called to be salt become flat, and we can no longer preserve this world and the people in it from decay and death.

It is a double danger and a double loss because everyone, including us, will be lost.

The Destiny

When [the disciples] hear the words: “When they curse you and persecute you and accuse you of every evil,” they may be afraid to come forward. Therefore, he says [in effect]; “Unless you are prepared for that sort of thing, it is in vain that I have chosen you. Curses shall necessarily be your lot, but they shall not harm you and will simply be a testimony to your constancy. If through fear, however, you fail to show the forcefulness your mission demands, your lot will be much worse, for all will speak evil of you and despise you. That is what being trampled by men’s feet means” [Ibid].

Never presume that the world and the prince of this world, the devil, love you or are pleased with you. You are just a tool for them to use; when you do connive with them, you are not loved or respected but rather regarded with contempt because you are so easily manipulated. Once you are no longer useful, you will be thrown out and trampled underfoot. This is the worst double loss of all: you are useless to God and useless to the world.

It is better to be hated by the world but be with God, in His love and in service to Him. Curses and hatred from the world will be something of our lot here in this passing world, but such things cannot ultimately hurt us; in fact, they testify on our behalf. In the end, the victory will be ours.

Stay salty, my friends. Otherwise expect the double loss of being good for nothing: useless to God and to souls. You will be laughed at and scorned by the world and the devil, who will trample you underfoot in derision.

These are strong words, but they are spoken by none other than the Lord Himself and St. John Chrysostom.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard:  The Double Loss of Being Good for Nothing

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?

“Strange but Rich Verses” File: What Does Acts 1:4 Mean by Saying that Jesus was Eating Salt with Them?

There is an unusual verse that occurs in the first chapter of the Acts the Apostles, describing a gathering of Jesus and the Apostles after the Resurrection but before the Ascension.

There is an unusual verse that occurs in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, describing a gathering of Jesus and the apostles after the resurrection but before the ascension. For the most part, modern translations do not reveal the full oddity of the verse. The verse in question, as rendered by the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition, is this:

And while staying with them he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father (Acts 1:4).

However, a number of scripture scholars, including none other than Joseph Ratzinger, point out that the verse is more literally translated as follows:

And while eating salt with them he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father.

The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, better known as Strong’s Concordance, makes no mention of the connection of the word συναλιζόμενος (synalizomenos) to salt. It parses the word as syn (with) + halizo (to throng or accumulate) to arrive at the definition “to assemble together.”

However, another source, A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament (Pontifical Biblical Institute), includes a different analysis of the word: syn (with) + halas (salt), to arrive at the definition “to take salt together” or by extension, “to share a meal.”

So, there seem to be two rather different notions of the etymology. It is also interesting that none of the writings of the Greek Fathers that I was able to consult make any mention of the possible connection to salt, though St. John Chrysostom does connect the word to a meal rather than a mere gathering.

I know just enough Greek to be dangerous; I certainly cannot sort out why different sources parse the word differently, but for our purposes let’s just chalk it up to a difference among experts, much as is the case with another passage on which I have written here: Agapas vs. Philo.

I would like to explore the translation that the Lord was “eating salt with them.” How odd to our modern ears, especially when the “food police” today treat salt almost as a poison! Despite that, salt is still precious today, even if less necessary than it was in the ancient world.

Let’s consider what Pope Emeritus Benedict wrote (as Joseph Ratzinger):

For a correct understanding … the word used by Luke—synalizómenos—is of great significance. Literally translated, it means “eating salt with them.” Luke must have chosen the word quite deliberately. Yet what is it supposed to mean? In the Old Testament the enjoyment of bread and salt, or of salt alone, served to establish lasting covenants (cf Num 18:19, 2 Chron 13:5). Salt is regarded as a guarantee of durability. It is a remedy against putrefaction, against the corruption that pertains to the nature of death. To eat is always to hold death at bay—it is a way of preserving life. The “eating of salt” by Jesus after the Resurrection, which we therefore encounter as a sign of new and everlasting life, points to the Lord’s new banquet with his followers … it has an inner association with the Last Supper, when the Lord established the New Covenant. So the mysterious cipher of eating salt expresses an inner bond between the [Last Supper] and the risen Lord’s new table fellowship; he gives himself to his followers as food and thus makes them sharers in his life, in life itself … the Lord is drawing the disciples into a New Covenant-fellowship with him … he is giving them a share in the real life, making them truly alive and slating their lives through participation in his Passion, the purifying power of his suffering (Jesus of Nazareth Vol. 2, pp. 271-272).

So indeed, salt and covenants are tied. Here are a few verses that make the connection:

  • Whatever is set aside from the holy offerings the Israelites present to the Lord I give to you and your sons and daughters as your perpetual share. It is an everlasting covenant of salt before the Lord for both you and your offspring (Numbers 18:19).
  • 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 Chronicles 13:5)
  • 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 (Leviticus 2:13).

It makes sense that Luke would refer to Jesus as eating salt with the disciples. To untrained ears it may seem odd, but to ears tuned to the biblical world the reference has great significance. Jesus is affirming the New Covenant and this expression points to that.

Of course, it is no mere table fellowship; it is the meal of the New Covenant we have come to call the Mass. Hence, without doing disservice to Luke’s description, we can say (in our more developed theological language) that during the forty days before He ascended, the Lord celebrated Mass with them. Thus, the Emmaus description (Luke 24:30) of Jesus at the table giving thanks, blessing the bread, breaking it, and giving it to them so that they recognize Him therein, is not the only allusion to a post-resurrection Mass.

Is it “Eating salt with them” or “Staying with them”? You decide, but I vote for salt. 😉

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!