We’re told to be the “salt of the earth”, but what does that really mean?

Jesus told his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned?” (Matt. 5:13; also Luke 14:34). I don’t know about you, but this statement has never really fired me up spiritually. I mean, salt? The stuff that comes in tiny little paper packets at McDonald’s? What about gold or precious gems, something beautiful and special and rare? In our society, salt is the most mundane of commodities. You can buy a giant canister of it for a dollar and throw it on everything. It’s pretty much impossible to run out of salt, and it never goes bad. When I read a verse like Matthew 5:13, my brain has all these questions about salt but I’ve always just pushed them to the back of my mind and kept going. Recently the questions have been nagging at me, however, because if Jesus says we’re supposed to be something (or be like something), then we should do our level-best to understand the analogy. So I recently decided to try and get a better context around His statement.

Though today it’s something we totally take for granted, salt has a fascinating history. A precious substance in the ancient world, salt can be credited with building civilization. Since it allowed for preservation of food beyond immediate consumption, it gave people the ability to travel more than a day’s journey away and led to the development of trade. Throughout the centuries wars were fought over it, trade routes sprung up around it, and at times it was worth more than gold.  In fact, it was often accepted as currency and is where the word salary (literally “salt-money,” or allowance a Roman soldier was given to buy salt) and the expression “he’s worth his salt” come from. So to put us back in Jesus’s time, salt was very valued and useful, and the people listening to Him would have known this.

A precious, useful material

“Useful and valuable” is a good place to start in terms of describing what a true Christian should be. Salt has myriad properties that make it as useful today as it was in the ancient world. As mentioned above, one of its first uses was as a preservative and purifying agent, to keep food from spoiling or to purify or disinfect something. While the world will ultimately go down a path of destruction, God’s people are called as examples to preserve themselves and their families from the spiritual and moral decay of society. James tells us that pure and undefiled religion before God is this, “to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).

Purity (both physical and spiritual) is perhaps the key theme underlying all of God’s commandments, and is the crowning achievement of the Bride of Christ, composed of the resurrected firstfruits. Paul says Christ will “present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish”—that is, pure (Eph. 5:27).

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