“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” (Matthew 5:13)
If the beatitudes are a picture of the kingdom, the disciples are proof that God’s kingdom has, at least in part, come. The promise of the future is displayed in believers as they exhibit the kingdom life. Jesus’ metaphors of salt and light emphasize the active role Christians play in the world. Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth….” We don’t really hear people say you are the salt of the earth as much as a few decades ago, but most people understand it. The modern understanding of the phrase has come to mean a good, kind, and trustworthy person. When Jesus uses the phrase, it is part of a parabolic maxim, a short pithy story that illustrates Jesus’ point about the character of believers. What did Jesus mean when he used it?
Salt has thousands of uses in modern day. Everything from food preservative, to DIY house cleaning hacks, and making a scrub for dry skin. The word salt also has many meanings. There are several uses of the term salt, preservative, adding flavor, purify, wisdom, and covenant, just for example. Which ones Jesus meant when he identified his disciples as salt is a challenge. It’s likely Jesus didn’t have one single view of salt in mind, and the comparison to light helps us understand Jesus’ intentions even if we can’t narrow down the list. One important meaning for the word salt needs more exploration, not because it narrows the meaning Jesus intended but because the everyday reader of the bible could easily overlook it. Salt as covenant, is likely part of what Jesus means when he tells his disciples they are salt of the earth. In Leviticus 2:13 every grain offering must be seasoned with salt. Salt has a lasting quality to it. Salt doesn’t burn, at least not easily, and it lasts forever because it’s a stable compound. These qualities make it useful for representing an eternal covenant. The requirement that the priests must never forget to add salt, ties it to the faithfulness of Israel to uphold their side of the covenant.
“Season all your grain offerings with salt to remind you of God’s eternal covenant. Never forget to add salt to your grain offerings.” (Leviticus 2:13 NLT)
“All the holy contributions that the people of Israel present to the Lord I give to you, and to your sons and daughters with you, as a perpetual due. It is a covenant of salt forever before the Lord for you and for your offspring with you.” (Numbers 18:19 ESV)
In Numbers 18:19, we see again the mention of salt as part of an eternal covenant. Salt, which acts as a preservative symbolizes the permanence of the covenant. How does this connect with the idea that Jesus’ disciples are the salt of the earth? Keeping the idea of covenant in mind, and the development of Jesus’ sermon on the mount, the connection starts to come together. Jesus ministry celebrated the coming of the Kingdom of God. The beatitudes describe what the kingdom of God looks like, and the disciples are proof of what is to come. They represent the eternal covenant God has made with the world that the Kingdom is coming and there will be an end to sin, evil, suffering, and chaos. The disciples are active examples of God’s covenant to redeem creation.
Salt doesn’t lose its saltiness, but people do. People can return to their old lives and stop living as an example of the good God is doing to love and save humanity. If Jesus’ disciples stop being salt, or active agents of a renewed creation and the promise of the Kingdom, they have no use in the kingdom. Everyone who follows Jesus is given the purpose of being an example of God’s eternal covenant that the kingdom has come and is coming. We are activists, spreading the love of God to a world that needs hope and a promise that good will overcome evil, that suffering will end, and a renewed creation is coming. Just how do we accomplish this, well, in God’s kingdom there are the poor in spirit, the mourner, the meek, those who hunger for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. The beatitudes point to what the kingdom looks like, the passage on salt and light teaches us who we are, and the rest of Jesus’ sermon points to the life as salt and light in the world.