SOTM: Matthew 5:13 (Salt)


(Mat 5:13 ESV) “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.”

Commentators struggle with this passage, because the idea of disciples being “salt” is not found elsewhere. What is it about salt that Jesus considers important?

Theories include —

* Salt as a preservative.

* Salt as a flavoring.

* Salt as an essential nutrient.

* Salt bricks used to line ovens that eventually crystalized and lost their value as insulators.

* Salt used on Temple sacrifices (Lev 2:13).

* Salt as a purifying agent (Exo 2:35).

* Salt as a metaphor for peace and friendship (Mark 9:50; Col 4:6).

* Salt as a metaphor for wisdom (which is why the Greek word for tasteless is the same as the word for “foolish.”)

But Jesus speaks of the taste of salt as being the important thing.

Salt makes things taste better — perhaps as wisdom, or peace and friendship, or purification, or just about any other way that something might be made better by the disciples of Jesus.

When I was about in sixth grade, I had a chemistry set. I was doing an experiment that required some salt water, and I had a clear glass filled with extremely salty water next to me. My little brother — about 7 at the time — came into the house and asked if he could drink the water — and so I let him do as he’d asked.

Well, I figured he’d take a sip, make a funny face, and give it back — a good laugh. But he drank the whole thing. And the inevitable happened — he lost his lunch right there on the kitchen floor, and I was in big trouble.

Salt tastes great — but only on something else. By itself, it’s nauseating. And Jesus’ disciples make the world taste better, if they are flavoring their surrounding friends and community. If they keep their goodness to themselves, they become disgusting.

The NET Bible translator notes explain,

A saying in the Talmud (b. Bekhorot 8b) attributed to R. Joshua ben Chananja (ca. A.D. 90), when asked the question “When salt loses its flavor, how can it be made salty again?” is said to have replied, “By salting it with the afterbirth of a mule.” He was then asked, “Then does the mule (being sterile) bear young?” to which he replied: “Can salt lose its flavor?” The point appears to be that both are impossible. The saying, while admittedly late, suggests that culturally the loss of flavor by salt was regarded as an impossibility. Genuine salt can never lose its flavor. In this case the saying by Jesus here may be similar to Mat 19:24, where it is likewise impossible for the camel to go through the eye of a sewing needle.

In short, the ancients knew what we modern folk know: salt cannot lose its flavor. True disciples are always tasty, because true disciples always have an impact on their surroundings. They do not isolate themselves and so become disgusting to God.

And we see in Jesus’ ministry that he set this example. He spent plenty of time with his own, but he also mingled freely with the lost and the outcasts — and did so joyously.

A few other points —

Jesus refers to “you” (plural) emphatically. He is saying that his disciples are the salt of the earth, not people in general or Jews in general.

“Of the earth” could be just a poetic way of referring to salt that is mined from the earth. The Jews generally mined salt from the shores of the Dead Sea. They did not take it from its waters or ocean water.

But “earth” can also refer to our future inheritance (as in “the meek shall inherit”), and so Jesus might be saying that his disciples are the salt of the new heavens and new earth yet to come — a good flavor coming from the Kingdom.

Or his point could be that his disciples flavor the entire planet, not just the Promised Land (the Jews). This is the position taken by McKnight, who finds a promise to extend the Kingdom to the Gentiles here.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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