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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 ESV)

What does Jesus mean when he tells his disciples that they are the salt of the earth? Much has been done with this text as people try to explain what it means that we are the salt of the earth. If you pick up any number of books you will find two things that most of them will tell you. Salt was used in a number of different ways in ancient times. Therefore scholars are vexed as to what attribute of salt to consider that Jesus is emphasizing. One of the primary points that is made is that salt was used as a preservative. They did not have refrigerators back then. So salt was an important ingredient in the life of those in ancient times so that they could preserve their meats. Further, salt was added to sacrifices to indicate the strength of the covenant. Salt also flavored the foods they ate. Many of the writers will then tell us one of two things. Either, we must not narrow down the meaning to one possibility and incorporate all of the different uses for salt in the ancient world or that the most valuable use for salt then was a preservative and this is the intended meaning.

Many lessons have been given with this cultural contextualization of salt as a preservative. Therefore, since we are to be the salt of the earth, we are to keep the world from corruption. Our job in this world is to prevent the decay of the world. Please think about this for a moment. How are we supposed to stop the corruption of the world? The world is already corrupt. The world is not righteous. The world is not good. The world is not moral. It is not like the world is decaying and we are trying to slow that process down. The world is sinful and utterly lost. It has decayed. It is corrupted. You cannot stop the reality of what has already happened. Think about the number of scriptures that make the point that the world is already dark, already lost, dead in its sins, and deserving the wrath of God. The idea that we are preserving the world from corruption gives the notion that the world is not bad. But it already is. To further confirm that this is not what Jesus means, please consider that the scriptures, for all of its uses of salt, never describes salt as a preservative. We know people used salt this way but when the scriptures speak of salt, preservation or retarding corruption is never the use.

So what does Jesus mean? We would do well and go far if we would simply read what Jesus said and applied salt the way he said. Listen again to what Jesus said.

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 ESV)

What function of salt does Jesus intend? What function of salt is Jesus talking about? “But if the salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored?” Some translations read, “If the salt has lost its flavor.” What is the point of salt that Jesus is talking about? He is talking about flavor and taste. He is not talking about covenants. He is not talking about preservatives. He is not talking about purification. He is talking about seasoning, just like how we use salt for cooking to flavor the food. Every cooking show I ever see is the need to put salt in with the ingredients. The same was true for the ancients. The bland food was made to taste better when salt was added to the cooking procedure. We must read what Jesus said about salt and apply the message the way he applied it, not coming up with our own “genius” ideas. So let us consider what Jesus was teaching.

Identity

The first point Jesus makes is about our identity. Notice that Jesus says you are salt. He does not say that you have salt. Jesus is telling you what you are. This is your characteristic. This is your identity. This is in keeping with the Beatitudes that introduced this sermon. Jesus is describing who you are. Jesus is describing the identity of those who belong to him and are in his kingdom.

Jesus’ disciples have an effect of people around them. This is the simple idea of salt. We will have an effect on the earth. I want us to think about what that looks like. What does it look like to salt the earth? Please consider that Jesus does not describe us as weapons on the earth. What I mean by this is that the way we affect the world is not in an aggressive, angry, caustic kind of way. The world around us is continuing to shift and continuing to decay as it walks further and further away from the principles of God. So how will we handle this? Jesus says we are the salt. So we cannot ignore what is happening. We cannot keep the salt to ourselves. But as salt we are not to be explosive either. We have to be careful that we are not simply reactionary so that we are not salt to those around us.

The way Paul uses the idea of our saltiness may help us see the idea the New Testament has about us being the salt of the earth. “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Colossians 4:6 ESV) Notice that the idea is graciousness. Seasoning your speech with salt means that you have added graciousness to the words you have said. In the same way, we need to consider the concept of being the salt of the earth in terms of how are we speaking and showing grace to the situation. We need to affect people in a way that they will listen to what we have to say. So the way we talk about the election, Target, North Carolina, PayPal, Supreme Court decisions, and the like must all show that we are the salt of the earth with our identity tied to Jesus. Are we salt on Facebook and Twitter?

What Jesus is telling us is that we are putting the characteristics of the Beatitudes into practice. The Beatitudes describe us as people who are meek, merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers. We are added a different dimensions to relationships. We are showing something different to the world. The world is angry. The world is explosive. The world is destructive to others. The world is hateful. The world has malice. We are to be salt in this world. We are going to speak and act in a way that helps the situation so that God is glorified. This is who you are. We are practicing the characteristics of Jesus. We look different and we speak different. We react different. We handle life different. We understand the world differently. We deal with people differently.

Losing Saltiness

Notice that the rest of the verse is a warning. If salt has lost it taste, it is good for nothing. Jesus is concerned that you will lose your identity. Jesus warns us that followers can lose their ability to be the agents of transformation when our lives are not pure, righteous, and different from the world. By losing our taste we are losing our effectiveness and thus become worthless. When those who claim to be disciples fail to be pure, hungering for Jesus, being poor in spirit, showing meekness, and being peacemakers, then our ability to change the world is damaged and cannot be restored. Disciples are supposed to have the ability to transform lives by practicing the gospel of Jesus. A lack of a virtuous life negates the gospel. We are to affect others, not be like others. The conduct of Jesus’ disciples needs to be considered in its effect on the world. Jesus demands that we must not be like the world but affect the world. But affect the world in a way that God is glorified, not damaged.

Salt of the earth shows that we are not allowed to turn inward and only live our Christianity to ourselves. We must affect the world. We must be in contact with the world in a way that will season them in godliness. Our words will be gracious. Our actions will be merciful. Our hearts will be pure. Our minds will be focused on Jesus. Our attitude will be poor in spirit.

The consequence is certainly frightening. Jesus says that we no longer have a purpose with God. We must see ourselves as instruments of God’s righteousness. The apostle Paul said this:

Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. (Romans 6:13 ESV)

Every member of our body is presented before God for his use. But if we have lost our saltiness, then we are no longer able to be used by our God. We want to be tools that God uses. We want to be his hands and feet. We want to be his tongue. Think about how Peter pictured this very idea for us.

Whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:11 ESV)

This is what it means for us to be given the calling of being the salt of the earth.

Transformation

So we must ask ourselves if we are still salty. Have we lost our taste? Have we lost our saltiness? We are transforming lives by pointing them to Jesus. We are changing relationships by the way we speak. The picture is very simple. Salt makes food better. What is the point of salt if it is not doing that? We are not make the earth better. We are not make things better, not worse. Do not forget who you are! You are to be demonstrating Jesus to the world. Who do you influence? How do you influence? Where do you influence?

So let’s think about how we talk to people at work. Let us think about how we post on Facebook or Twitter. Are we speaking in ways that discredit the gospel? Are we behaving worldly and not in a way that shows the glory of the gospel. We must embrace our identity and live according to who Jesus has made us. You are the salt of the earth.