“Salt of the Earth”
by Rev. Rebecca Migliore
September 26, 2021
A million years ago, I took organic chemistry—the science behind how molecules bind together to make structures. And so when I read through the lesson for today, and Jesus says, “have salt in yourselves” what immediately popped into my mind was the chemical combination for salt, NaCl (sodium chloride). Salt is a very stable substance, since each sodium ion (with a positive charge) is connected to a chloride ion (which has a negative charge). What I hadn’t remembered, was that salt’s crystalline form was a cube made up of cubes. In fact, seasalt.com says, “the salt crystal is often used as an example of crystalline structure.”
I’m sure that’s way more than you wanted to know about the composition of salt. And Jesus, and his ancestors would have known none of it. But they did know the power of salt, to heal, to make food taste better, even to help cure meat. And so, salt becomes a symbol of strength, of feistiness, even of determination. In the pairing of this lesson with a reading from the book of Esther we have a poke about what this saltiness might look like.
Esther, one of the two books of the Old Testament named for a woman was a queen, but also a Jew. And in a time when there were people high up in the kingdom who were intending to slaughter all the Jewish people they could, Esther is asked to approach the king and ask for a blanket pardon. The problem was, that Esther, by law, couldn’t approach the king without being summoned, or she would risk being put to death immediately. In our reading for today we hear Esther making up her mind to approach the king, for as her uncle suggestions, she might have been born, she might have been chosen as queen, “for such a time as this.” If you have not read the Esther story recently, I invite you to reacquaint yourself—it has all the hall-marks of a best-seller.
Queen Esther most certainly has salt. But what does it mean for us to be, as the gospel of Matthew puts it in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “the salt of the earth.” Anyone who has ever mixed up sugar and salt, or even just put a little too much salt on your food knows that too much salt ruins everything. How do we manage that spectrum between having salt in ourselves and not destroying the meal, the community we belong to.
I am fascinated that Jesus pairs having salt with “be at peace with one another.” I think the stories we hear today show that he was dealing with his own disciples and what made for community, what was required in being part of that community, in other words, salt and peace. Individuality and Community.
We start off this morning with a story of inclusion and exclusion. Remember that the disciples have been trailing around after Jesus, basically in training to be mini-healers. But they have run into problems—like not being able to perform the same healing wonders as Jesus. Just before last week’s text, the disciples had had to bring Jesus in to heal a child seized with a spirit. And when they asked, “Why could we not cast it out?” Jesus replies “This kind can come out only through prayer.”
Jump to our lesson from this morning. Obviously, there was someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name, except it wasn’t one of the disciples! Here was this person, not in the “in” group, using the name of Jesus to do what they had not always been able to do. So, of course, they told this interloper to stop, “because he was not following us.” In Jesus’ eyes this was wrong because “Whoever is not against us is for us.”
It was another of those moments when the community that Jesus was creating expanded. Just last week, Jesus was pulling a little child, a nobody, into their midst and saying that that child was the greatest—suggesting that the least of these were to be a part, even a focus of the community.
And now Jesus wants to include those who haven’t been with the disciples from the beginning; he wants to include those who do things totally indecently and not in order; he expects us to widen the community, his community even more.
And I bet that didn’t sit so well with everyone. Because it’s hard to include those who don’t see the world the way you do. It’s hard to give up being the center of attention, the one with the right answers, being a special friend of Jesus.
And this, I think, is why we get into the next part of our lesson—cutting off body parts. There has been scholarship on what each body part represents—hand, foot, eye. I’ll let your imagination run wild. What is apparent is that Jesus doesn’t want us to be stumbling blocks to others in their faith, nor does Jesus want anything to get in our own way. It would be better to enter the kingdom of God without that body part, than to keep all of yourself and be thrown into hell.
What is Jesus saying?
I don’t think Jesus is intending, as some fundamentalists of various religious persuasions contend, that we should actually cut off various parts of people’s bodies as punishment. Notice that Jesus is not suggesting for others to do this, but this is intended as an examination of self. I find it difficult to believe that Jesus actually meant for us to harm ourselves, as some have done, even some called saints.
The brutality of the images of cutting things off is meant to catch our attention, and maybe point out how difficult it is to follow in what was called “the way” (meaning the way of Jesus). Many of the stories that we hear from Jesus contain choices—choosing to walk away from your family, choosing to give up your riches, choosing to put yourself last instead of first. None of this is easy. And now Jesus wants us to consider that we aren’t just making choices for ourselves. We have to consider others as well.
The cutting off of parts of the body happens because of “causing you to stumble.” Or worse yet, to cause another to stumble, especially one of the “little ones,” one of those who is still young in their faith.
I think we get so caught up in the goriness of spurting blood, and the image of self-harm, that we can lose sight of the bedrock meaning. We might have to give up things, things that are very near and dear to us, for the sake of the journey. When we prioritize Jesus, and the way Jesus wants us to live, relationships with others becomes more important than anything else. And these others aren’t necessarily our family, even our chosen religious family. These others, include the least of these. These others, include those not “with us.”
Let’s step back and use an example that might be less sensational. We all have had the experience of making choices. Like, what do you decide to take with you to college? Or which pieces of your life do you release as you downsize your home? What might you have to pack away to make your home safe for a new baby? In all these situations, there is a priority, something that urges you to be willing to do the hard work of picking this but not that, of thinking through what is most necessary, of reconstructing your world because of another.
And maybe it will feel like cutting off a part of yourself. Maybe it will require a lot of salt, both in strength and in tears. Maybe it can only be done because there is something “greater” to be gained. Any way you explain what Jesus was doing, I notice that he has turned the conversation away from what others are doing, to what you are doing. Maybe part of this expansion of the community of Jesus is that we try to focus on what we have the most control over—ourselves, even as we recognize that we can’t always be the center of our own attention.
For it is a push and pull—this line between ourselves and our community. Between having salt and having peace with others. All we have to do is turn on the TV, or read a newspaper to see the tension.
Is getting a vaccine an individual freedom? Or is it seen as a community action? The pandemic has at the same time made us more isolated and yet more dependent on what everyone else does!
Which brings me back to the composition of salt. There is something wondrous that what makes salt so stable is that it is made up of two different essences, two different polarities, those differences binding themselves together, making each other stronger. As I said, in Jesus’ time, no one understood organic chemistry—but salt proves the point I think he was trying to make. That we are stronger, we are better, we are more, by being in community. And not just the community that we think we have, but a wider community than we often imagine.
Jesus knew that we would need to be strong in ourselves, to weather the world that we always find ourselves in. But Jesus also knew that we needed to bring our individual strength into relationship with others, into the community, into the wider world. And that requires every ounce of saltiness we possess. Because the peace we desire is God’s peace, Shalom—the word that encompasses justice and wholeness and equity and rightness before God. Being at peace with one another, or another way of putting it, bringing in the kingdom, is that far-off ideal, that light we walk towards, the reason we can even begin to consider what we are willing to let go, or in Jesus’ words, “cut off.”
As we continue to learn what Jesus wants of us, how Jesus sees our world, and what picking up our cross and following him might truly mean, I lift up a prayer for us all:
May God give us salt for the journey.
May God grant us eyes to see our greater community.
May God bring peace, Shalom, to our world.
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.