An elderly gentleman once spoke to me in the supermarket. He obviously wasn’t that familiar with shopping. To be on the safe side, his wife had used her cell phone to take photos of the things he was supposed to buy. He stood in front of the shelf with the salt and showed me a photo of a salt packet. His wife would always buy exactly this salt. He just couldn’t find it on the shelf right now. I told him it didn’t matter which salt he bought. Salt is always salt. But he told me no, it had to be exactly this salt. After a short time we had found the salt. I thought that was strange, but I wasn’t really surprised, after all, a real cult surrounding the salt has flared up in recent years and you can now find a wide variety of varieties. Essentially a marketing gimmick, I mean. Because, as I said, salt is always salt. But I remembered that salt was a very expensive commodity here in Germany for centuries. The „white gold“ had to be laboriously mined in salt pans. The Hanseatic League was essentially a trading community that transported salt throughout the Baltic Sea region. With this in mind, the gospel of the salt of the earth could be easily understood. Just as salt is something rare and valuable that is absolutely necessary for life, so Christians are also something rare and precious for this world that the world needs for life. And the second thing Jesus said about salt, I thought, he’s just plain wrong. Salt cannot lose its taste. In fact, it’s one of the few foods that doesn’t have a sell-by date, meaning it never spoils. So there is actually no danger that Christians will lose their Christianity in a figurative sense. With these two statements about salt, I thought, a sermon about the „salt of the earth“ would actually be complete, I thought. But I was wrong.
For one thing, I’ve learned that salt can lose its flavor. As always in his parables, Jesus takes up the very concrete experience of the people of his time. At that time, salt was extracted from the Dead Sea in Israel by evaporation. However, this salt was not the pure salt we buy in the supermarket today. In addition to the salt, it contained a lot of other substances that were also deposited during evaporation. Lime, for example, other minerals and organic residues from plants. If you didn’t store this mixture properly so that it got wet, it could happen that the water that got in would wash out the actual salt from the mixture and only the rest of the substances would remain. Such a salt had lost its taste. It was no longer suitable for cooking, but was used as a building material, perhaps because of the lime, and was thrown on the paths, among other things, to make them stronger. That is why Jesus can say: “This salt is no longer good for anything, it is thrown away and trampled on by people.” The second thing I learned is that salt was not a luxury item at that time, but something very common. It has always been extracted from the water in the Mediterranean. It was available in large quantities. There are Roman sources that show that 10.5 kilos of salt per person per year were needed for a household. Today it’s two to three kilos. This large amount of salt was needed because it was used to preserve food, meat, fish, eggs and vegetables by pickling them in salt. So salt was only partly a spice, and partly as a means of preserving perishable foods.
As it often happens, this property of salt also acquired a religious meaning. The salt stands for the permanent, the conserving, the always valid. It stood for the sacred in Judaism. Because everything is sustained by God’s eternal goodness, to have salt in you is to have God’s holiness in you. Therefore, the offerings in the temple were salted beforehand as a sign that they were destined for the sacred and should have eternal significance before God. The opposite of salt was leaven. Anything that comes into contact with it spoils faster. Therefore, no leaven was to be in the realm of the Holy One, in the temple, or at the Passover feast. So when Jesus says, „You are the salt of the earth,“ it means you are to bear witness to God on the earth. You belong to the realm of the holy, therefore, according to Jesus in another passage, the disciples should beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which makes them unclean in the sense of holiness.
So much for the religious interpretation. Of course, that’s not the end of it. Because of course you can ask yourself: what does that actually mean in concrete terms? Admittedly, the principle of holiness is no longer so familiar today or associated with the saints, people who have embodied this principle so intensely that it is almost unattainable for ordinary people. But there is something of that sacredness in each of us. However, it is mostly hidden. I came up with an image that might help. The salt is always salt. If you cook a stew that you eat for several days, you’ll find that it gets saltier every day. The reason for this is quite simple: over time, the water evaporates more and more, but the salt content remains the same. The salt comes out more and more. I have a hunch it’s very similar in a human life. The salt, if present, becomes more and more visible over the years.
I remember the funeral of a woman who had died of old age. Her three daughters, who were now grandmothers themselves, told me very impressively about their mother’s last years. They said: It’s true, our mother was less and less able, she was severely restricted by age and illness. She could no longer leave her apartment. But she remained the center of our family. When her grandchildren came, they went to her first. Sometimes just to sit next to her. And they came back happy every time. This woman must have been wonderful and she only got more wonderful with age. The more limited her outward life became, the more showed her goodness, her kindness and the love she had for her family. Being with her was just sitting in the sun and being surrounded by that kindness. Much more was not possible. But not much more was needed. The salt stays where it is. It may be mixed with many other things and on a bad day it cannot be tasted. But basically that is sanctity: cultivating the eternal, the necessities of life. To receive from God and to become more and more like him, despite all imperfections and all breaks. „You are the salt of the earth“ is more than a statement, it is a life’s work.