MATTHEW 5:13a (part one)
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 5:13a (part one) “Ye are the salt of the earth:. . .”
The remainder of the Sermon on the Mount presupposes a desire on our part to be constantly repeating the cycle of godliness the Beatitudes set forth. People who seek to enact, to flesh out in their daily lives, the Beatitude-sequence shall impact their world for God. Their lives will count, be important, have significance.
Persecution must not keep us from our duty. We have significant work to do. Suffering is easier to bear if one truly believes the cause is worthwhile, and Christians are called to the most important work in the world, to influence society. No person lives to self. All people are mutually dependent, influencing and being influenced, and Christians are to exert their influence on behalf of God’s kingdom.
The very purpose of showing the Beatitude-traits of the kingdom is to exercise influence on those outside the kingdom. Though Jesus was speaking to His own, the world was on His mind. Christ did and does love the masses, the vast unheeding multitudes who do not love Him. The Church exists more for the world’s sake than for its own. Christ takes care of us, we in turn are to take care of the world. Jesus, loving inhabitants of “the earth,” commissioned us to be their “salt.”
When He said, “Ye are the salt of the earth,” every homemaker in Galilee knew exactly what He meant. Salt preserves, keeps food from spoiling. Before refrigeration, our modern preservative, people had no preservative other than salt.
Salt retards the rotting process. Harold Beck, my chemist-friend, has helped me better understand this process. Salt’s success in combatting decomposition is due to its almost irresistible penetrating power. A small amount of salt can go a long way and have significant impact in a large medium. What we call a grain of salt is actually millions of sodium and chlorine ions. As a grain dissolves, these ions scatter everywhere, permeating everything. By the process of osmosis, these ions pull water across the membranes of cells. This is why doctors tell us to limit our salt intake. Though salt is indispensable to life–we have to have it in our blood and other body fluids–our body cannot tolerate too much salt. To get rid of excess salt, our renal system is forced to work overly hard. For preservation, though, a high concentration of salt is good. It drains water from microbes which cause decomposition in meat, making it impossible for them to function due to dehydration.
By using this vivid metaphor, Jesus in one fell swoop taught two vital concepts: something is seriously wrong with society, and something can be done to hold the malady in check. Human society has significant problems. The very fact “the earth” needs “salt” is a serious indictment, a grave judgment.
Society in and of itself and left to itself is corrupt, a vast heap of unsavory stuff ready to rot. In every community are germs of evil, infective agents which if unchecked cause disease. Within the human order, forces are at work which cause degeneration. In each individual, original sin is an active principle. All religious groups carry in themselves seeds which will inevitably sprout into apostasy. The sociologist knows institutions eventually cease to function. Anthropologists watch cultures come and go. Historians document the fact that nations rise and fall.
As Jesus spoke in Galilee, He was looking into the faces of a crowd reeling from the disintegration of their society at every level. Their political realm was in turmoil. Their religious institutions were cold, lifeless, out of touch. Their families were hurting due to high divorce rates, individuals were more concerned about their social conditions than about their spiritual shallowness. Jesus was speaking to a culture very similar to our own, and saw that their culture was breaking up, rotting.
Jesus not only saw what was wrong with society, but also told us how to hold the malady in check. Being honest, He did not say we could cure all the ills of our culture. Christians cannot save people, only God can do this. Salt cannot change corruption into incorruption; it merely slows its rate of spreading. Our task is to impede the corrupting influence, to slow the rate of rot, to “salt” earth’s corruption.
Believers, being citizens of “the kingdom of heaven” (MT 5:3,10), are God’s ordained medium through which the benefits of His Kingdom are applied to unbelievers, citizens of “the earth.” As salt keeps meat from putrefying, Christians are to preserve the mass of mankind from moral corruption and decay.
Our seasoning influence must be applied by each of us individually, not in mass. Christ’s prescribed method for preserving society is a personal one, not a corporate one. Salt is of no avail if laid up in one big heap. To be effective the mass must be broken down into small units which permeate. A little salt affects a large mass not by frontal attack, but by cellular infiltration. The early Christians learned this the hard way. Persecution forced them to cease being one big close-knit group at Jerusalem. They were forced to scatter, here a grain, there a grain.
History proves we accomplish little as a group, whether by force, arms, sword, pronouncements, or proclamations. For thirty years churches and denominations have passed resolutions against the ills of society. These help us encourage each other, but what have all these declarations done to slow our culture’s decay?
In Jesus’ day, two days were required to transport to Jerusalem fish caught in the Sea of Galilee. It would have done no good to carry a big block of salt in one hand and fish in the other. The fish had to be packed between many layers of salt. We cannot carry our Christian faith in a Sunday sack and our jobs and secular lives in a Monday-to-Saturday sack. We must bring the two together in one lump.
It is when we penetrate and infiltrate as dissolved grains of salt every strata of society that our influence is diffused far and wide. We cannot salt the earth from a distance. Salt is no good in a salt-shaker. Alone and to itself, salt is useless. We must get out of the salt-shaker and into “the earth.” The building we worship in is a $3,000,000 salt-shaker. We have to exert influence outside these walls. We must get out of the church-house and into the court-house, job-house, and school-house.
Dear believer, whatever your occupation, wherever you are, you are the salt of the earth. “The presence of a good man hinders the devil from having elbow-room to do his work” (Maclaren). You may consider your role insignificant, but you are part of the world’s preservative, one of millions of sodium and chlorine ions diffused throughout this degenerating culture to help keep it from spoiling.