The uses and abuses of salt

Don’t be a moron. Be pure salt. And be ready to be sprinkled around. (Listen.)

Some of my mother’s health kicks were worse than others. I could cope with brown bread, more lentils, less cordial; and we’d never been allowed lollies or chips. But when she decided to eliminate salt, meals became unbearably bland. Flavours no longer melded together, but jostled up against each other; everything lost its savour. “You’ll get used to it,” she’d say. “You just need to retrain your tastebuds.”

Well, I never did. When I turned fifteen, I took over the cooking, and straightaway began sneaking in the salt. I’d sprinkle a little on the onions, and they would sauté ever-so-gently in the olive oil. I’d throw some in the pasta water, and the spaghetti would be perfectly cooked. I’d put in a pinch to dissolve in vinegar, and the salad dressing would be perfect. ‘Salad’: ‘sale’: salt.

In our wealthy country, it’s easy to take salt for granted. But salt is precious. We all need salt not just to savour, but to survive; without it, we die. It’s so necessary that, in Jesus’ time, special roads were built to transport it safely all over the Roman Empire. These salt roads were guarded by Roman soldiers, who were paid their ‘salary’ in ‘sale’: salt. They were worth their salt. And if we are salt, and Jesus says we are, then all of us are precious.

Salt is used to make things tasty, but it also preserves food. In Jesus’ time, there was no canning and no refrigeration, so meat and veg were packed in salt to keep them from spoiling. And if we are salt, and Jesus says we are, then we must be willing to preserve and protect the nourishing and the good.

Salt is also a disinfectant and a wound cleaner. In Jesus’ time, people used it to staunch bleeding and treat skin diseases; even now, people use a salt gargle to clear out blocked sinuses, or to soothe a sore throat. So if we are salt, and Jesus says we are, then we must be willing to go into painful and infected places, in the world and in ourselves, with the healing rinse of the gospel.

In Jesus’ time, salt was used by pagans to ward off evil spirits. This is why some people even now throw salt over their shoulder if they spill it on the dinner table. And if we are salt, and Jesus says we are, then we must be willing to protect people from evil and the voice of accusation, praying always in the name of Christ.

Salt was also used by Jewish people in Temple offerings. All meat was salted before being offered to God; salt made it into a sign of the relationship between God and God’s people. To “eat salt with someone” meant pledging loyalty, fidelity, commitment. And if we are salt, and Jesus says we are, we must be willing to offer faithfulness to a faithless people, forgiveness where there is offense, peace where there is discord, and community where things are falling apart.

Salt is so powerful. And if we are salt, and Jesus says we are, we must be mindful of this power; we must work humbly and in the spirit of the Beatitudes. Because too much salt in the wrong place can poison, damage, dry out, embitter, even kill.

My friend Kay lives in maple country in Maine. When the roads are covered in snow and ice, the council sprinkles them with rock salt. The salt dissolves the ice and snow, and makes it safe to drive. But several years ago, they moved to a new, cheaper option. They moved from rock salt to liquid salt. The liquid salt ran off the roads and straight into the soil—and the maple trees lining the roads all died.

It is a great tragedy that, in many people’s eyes, the wider church has become like this. For whether out of arrogance and power, or ignorance and defensiveness, the church has become toxic to many. It has closed ranks, issued judgements, exacerbated wounds; it has desiccated souls, ruined fertile soil, and tried at all costs to preserve itself.

People need love and acceptance; the church has spat judgement and rejection. People need protection from evil; the church has offered safe haven to predators and ordered victims to forgive. People need economic justice; the church has been obsessed with reproductive morality and turned its back on the poor. People need hope in this life now; the church has hyper-spiritualised faith and done little to avert climate catastrophe.

It has forgotten that salt is given not to increase hostility or to cause rupture, but to bind people together in peace and love.

It has forgotten that salt is given not to further dry out parched and thirsty souls, but to lead people to the waters of life.

It has forgotten that salt is given not to be rubbed in the wounds of the suffering, but to clean up infection and bring forth healing.

It has forgotten that salt is given not to preserve its own life, but to preserve the life of others and the life of the world.

It has forgotten that salt is useful only when it is sprinkled around.

So salt is powerful stuff, given for life, protection, healing: yet its power is so easily abused. Perhaps that’s why Jesus warns against salt which has lost its saltiness: at least, this is the usual translation. But it doesn’t really make sense. Salt can’t lose its saltiness: being salty is exactly what salt is. The word translated as ‘losing saltiness’ is moraino; in other places in the Bible, moraino is translated as ‘becoming foolish’; it’s related to the word ‘moron.’

In other words, Jesus is saying, don’t be foolish. Don’t be low-grade salt. Don’t be salt which has been adulterated. Don’t be contaminated by greed or selfishness or shame or the lust for power or the drive to control. Don’t clump together in comfortable cliques or defensively self-righteous circles. Don’t judge; don’t condemn; don’t lord it over people. These ways are not the ways of the gospel, so don’t do these things: don’t be a moron.

Instead, keep your focus on the Beatitudes, and stay pure. Practice that humble and self-sacrificial love which fulfils the law. Love your neighbour; love your enemy. Venture into the darkest places, both within yourself and companioning others, and there name truth and show compassion: let Christ’s light shine in the darkness. Take part in God’s work of creativity and transformation. Dole out blessings with a generous hand. Be sharp; be real; be authentic. Bring out the best in others, and bring diverse people together in love.

For if we are given for the life of the world, and Jesus says we are, then we must enhance, heal, soften, and sustain that life. We must ward off evil; preserve what is good; and build loving connections with strangers.

So don’t be a moron. Be pure salt. And be ready to be sprinkled around. Ω

Hello, friend

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