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You are the salt of the earth – Just what does that mean?

February 6, 2011
In today’s Gospel reading from  Matthew (5:13-16) we are called “salt” and “light.”

Jesus said to his disciples: “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”

Fr. Bob gave an excellent homily this morning that I will try to recreate here.

Calling us “light” is something most of us can comprehend. Our actions shine forth for all the world to see, and hopefully our actions are even brighter because they are good actions. Others can be inspired by our example.

But what about “salt?” What does it mean to be “salt of the earth?” I am taking an Introduction to Sacred Scripture class this semester, and one of the things we are learning about this ancient, holy text is that context is everything. The Bible was written 2000-3000 years ago. The culture was a lot different then. We need to take a peek into the ways of that time to understand the phrases we read in the Bible.

Even in today’s society salt has many uses. (Here are Sixty Uses for Table Salt.) But how did the ancients use salt?

Salt was in use long before recorded history. Since the dawn of time, animals have instinctively forged trails to natural salt sources to satisfy their need for salt. Ancient man the hunter obtained his salt from eating animal meat. As he turned to agriculture and his diet changed, he found that salt (maybe as sea water) gave his vegetables the same salty flavour he was accustomed to with meat.

Over many millennia, he learned how salt helped to preserve food, cure hides and heal wounds. Nomadic bands would have carried salt with them and traded it with other bands for different goods. (http://www.saltsense.co.uk/history01.php)

There is a need for salt in our diet, and as man became less and less nomadic, he needed to make his own salt. Salt-making became its own industry and salt was used extensively in trade and as payment for labor. As a result, salt had great value in ancient societies, especially since it was less accessible than it is today.

The Bible contains numerous references to salt. In various contexts, it is used metaphorically to signify permanence, loyalty, durability, fidelity, usefulness, value, and purification. It was also used as a component of ceremonial offerings, and as a unit of exchange.

Ye are the salt of the earth. Salt preserves from corruption. As the disciples of Messiah we are to preserve the world from general corruption. Whatever becomes utterly corrupted is doomed to be destroyed. Just like food left out on the counter, our world is corrupt and doomed for destruction unless we do something about it. (http://www.jewishjesus.org/Article21.html – this is a very good article)

So we are to preserve the world from corruption. How exactly are we to do that? By remaining in the world and letting our “light” shine. The salt and the light work together in harmony. We need to keep our contracts and covenants and help others to see that their covenants are binding as well. We also need to share the Word of God and pray that more and more hearts will be converted to the Truth. Only God can change hearts, but it is our job to plant some salty seeds and watch God make them grow.

merton_sUpdate: In Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, he covers a lot of spiritual ground. While some are nervous about reading him, even happy that he died when he did before he got in serious trouble because of his interest in Eastern spiritualities, it appears that Merton was a committed Christian and was looking for what could be learned from them. Many Christians are spoiled by life in the West, even the vowed religious, and cannot comprehend the simple lifestyle of an Eastern monk. We will never know if Merton strayed away from Catholicism, or if he truly was trying to learn from them, one thing is certain, Merton lived a wild life prior to his conversion, and his conversion was hopefully sincere. If that is the case, then the devil worked extra hard on him if he did in fact fall. While that is a very simplistic overview of Merton I would like to add his comments on “salt of the earth” as they appear in The Seven Storey Mountain, which does have an imprimatur.

I had to be led by a way that I could not understand, and I had to follow a path that was beyond my own choosing. God did not want anything of my natural tastes and fancies and selections until they had been more completely divorced from their old track, their old habits, and directed to Himself, by His own working. My natural choice, my own taste in selecting a mode of life, was altogether untrustworthy. And already my selfishness was asserting itself, and claiming this whole vocation for itself, by investing the future with all kinds of natural pleasures and satisfactions which would fortify and defend my ego against the troubles and worries of life in the world.

Besides, I was depending almost entirely on my own powers and on my own virtues — as if I had any! — to become a good religious, and to live up to my obligations in the monastery. God does not want that. He does not ask us to leave the world as a favor to Himself.

God calls men — not only religious, but all Christians — to be the “salt of the earth.” But the savor of the salt, says St. Augustine, is a supernatural life, and we lose our savor if, ceasing to rely on God alone, we are guided, in our actions, by the mere desire of temporal goods or the fear of their loss: “Be ye not solicitous, therefore, saying what shall we eat, or what shall we drink or wherewith shall we be clothed? For after all these things do the heathens seek. For your Father knoweth that you have need of all these things.” “And he said to all: If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; for he that shall lose his life, for my sake, shall save it.”

No matter what religious Order a man enters, whether its Rule be easy or strict in itself does not much matter, if his vocation is to be really fruitful it must cost him something, and must be a real sacrifice. It must be a cross, a true renunciation of natural goods, even of the highest natural goods.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. C Cruz permalink
    January 21, 2012 12:57 am

    To make a long story short: the reason they left a block of salt out in the field was so the animals would lick and get thirsty and go drink water, otherwise they wouldn’t drink water.
    When the Bible says we are the salt of the earth, to me it would seem that if we are the salt of the earth, when we meet people and they lick of “our salt” they should get thirsty for the things of God.

    • catholicwideweb permalink*
      January 23, 2012 4:09 pm

      an interesting thought, but animals have a better innate sense than we humans do. they drink water when they are thirsty, they don’t need human intervention to help them know that.

    • Sadie Hudson permalink
      October 21, 2012 9:52 am

      Thank you. Your response has enlightened me is such a tremendous way.

      • catholicwideweb permalink*
        October 21, 2012 2:32 pm

        You’re very welcome. I am thankful that Fr. Bob gave an excellent homily that day to inspire this post.

  2. Timothy K. Ng'anjo permalink
    May 30, 2012 3:38 am

    Our main duty as Christians is to give light to the world. The wolrd today is getting corrupted every minute of each day. The pace at which the world is recognising the Christian values is very slow. Countries are engaging themselves in fights because of their ego to be above others (the quest for superiority). Jesus taught us to be servant so that we become masters in God’s eyes. If the world becomes salty, there shall be no rotting on earth. Let us Christians give taste to the world and the whole world will be an enjoyable place to all mankind to live in.

    May the Living God bless us all.

  3. Daphne permalink
    August 8, 2012 1:26 am

    As a christian, let ‘ME’ be the light so that even another christian can see that light and be one like me.Hence change the world! How? READ the WORD, MEDITATE ON IT, HUMBLE YOURSELF AND OBEY IT-SHOW IT IN YOUR ACTIONS – GOOD DEEDS. YOU BECOME A LIGHT. LET US SEARCH THE SCRIPTURES FOR IN THEM WE HAVE LIFE.
    GOD BLESS US ALL.

  4. Steve permalink
    November 27, 2012 7:39 pm

    To be the salt is to be a preservative, To be the salt of the world is to be the prevantative of death/decay. The result of sin is death, think about any sin and see the end result as it causes us to drift further away from jesus which is life and towards Satan which is the death of or eternal soul, So as people see us as a light to the world they move from death towards life thus preventing death which is decay. We are to be the preservative of death… salt and because of the way we live through our deeds our light will shine brightly and attract others towards us so we can also introduce them to Jesus Christ.

  5. Michael permalink
    December 23, 2012 3:41 pm

    Thank you. I searched the internet this morning to find this very answer. Well done and well explained. I inquired to my pastor last week and tried to explain it but didn’t really know. This helps me greatly. Have a blessed day!

    • catholicwideweb permalink*
      December 23, 2012 9:10 pm

      Thank you Michael! I am glad this post was useful for you.

  6. faith permalink
    January 29, 2013 3:53 pm

    That was really inspirational, I do agree with you.

  7. Karen Ramsumair permalink
    March 4, 2013 9:59 pm

    Please, someone explain in layman’s term what does “you are the salt of the earth” mean. None of these explaination did it for me.

  8. missy permalink
    March 27, 2013 7:21 am

    Margaret Visser wrote: “When Jesus called his followers ‘the salt of the earth’ he was telling them that they were irreplaceable, and that their mission was to give people what makes life worth living. There were few of them, but they were sufficient to season the whole earth, as a very little salt…is enough. They and their message would preserve and endure as salt is the great conserver, the image of permanence.”

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