MARK | PART 4: A CURIOUS USE OF SALT
A SERMON BY PASTOR CHICO MARTIN
Lections: Gen 3:1-7; Mark 9:38-50
Today we are faced with the curious use of salt… A friend of mine, who went to cooking school, will stop by the house every once in awhile and cook up a dinner for the two of us. I watch him closely as he cooks, and I was surprised to discover how much salt went into his tasty meals. Especially beef: he vigorously salts his beef. Of course, not wanting to be outdone over a stove, I too have taken up this practice. I can’t recall when I first learned that more salt is less good, but I don’t want extra blood pressure and hardened arteries, so I used scarcely any salt in my cooking. Until just a few years ago, I would have answered “Yes” to Job when he asked, “Can something tasteless be eaten without salt; Or is there any taste in the white of an egg?”
Jesus uses salt as a metaphor three times in the last two verses of today’s Gospel reading. First he says, “For everyone will be salted with fire.” Then he says, “Salt is good: but if the salt have lost its saltness, wherewith will ye season it?” And last he says, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Herein, I think, lies a mystery.
Salt is, after all, one of the first things we learn to confidently handle. We know what a saltshaker is, and how to use one; we are seldom fooled by its design, even when it is not made to be poured upside down. And we know where salt comes from: those blue containers in the cupboard with the picture of a girl with umbrella in a “shower of salt.” Along with sweet, sour, and bitter, salt is one of the four tastes of the tongue. So if some high school kids are misbehaving at the diner, and sugar gets pored into the salt shaker, we don’t mistake the sugar for salt without saltness; our tongue tells us quickly what has happened.
Opinions about how salt was harvested, stored, and used in Ancient Palestine vary. To the south of the Dead Sea, a ridge of rock salt, several hundred feet high, runs a length of over seven miles; here salt was obtained from pits. Salt also was taken from the salt water along the coast of the Dead Sea, which after flooding collected in pools, where the water naturally evaporated, leaving behind its course salt. This was the same way the Egyptians collected salt from the sea and the Nile. For the Egyptians, who used salt in their food, salt was an essential ingredient in preserving the body during mummification. Salt has a long history of being used as a food for sustaining life and as a preservative to protect against decay.[i] This latter use is the basis for the metaphorical use Jesus makes of salt.
The teaching Jesus gives to the disciples picks up where last week’s left off. Jesus is in Capernaum, in a disciple’s house, and only the twelve are there with him. His talk is meant for the disciples; it’s part of their training, which means it’s particularly instructive for us, as we come to terms with what discipleship means. The disciples, who had been arguing about who is the greatest among them, are now making judgments about outsiders they think should be excluded from Jesus’ blessings. Everything in their teacher’s talk leads up to the last line, when Jesus says, “Be at peace with one another.”
The picture we get is of Jesus shepherding his disciples, even as he gives them instructions for shepherding themselves. Some of you grew up in households with siblings, so you may have heard at some point one of your parents in exasperation tell you to “stop bickering and find a way of getting along.” That’s the sense of what’s going on here, but its not quite the full sense, because these twelve persons are integral to Jesus’ plan to procure the salvation of all creation. Their service to the world, and the accomplishment of God’s will, requires the disciples to be at peace with one another. They need to take the leap from an earthly to a heavenly perspective. And to do this, Jesus is saying, they are to have salt within them. The two, the salt and the peace, are somehow related. But how?
Jesus is not talking about the common use of salt for food, to bring out the flavor in meat while it is cooking; he is talking about the use of salt as a preservative to keep meat that is set aside from rotting. Saying to someone, “have salt within you” can be understood as another way of saying, “preserve yourself from worms,” that is, “avoid death.” The Egyptians preserved the dead with salt, but Jesus raises the dead. Jesus is saying, have salt within you, and you won’t die.
Put this body in the ground, and it will rot; worms will decompose it, because the earthly body is unsalted and does not abide. But have salt within you, and you will be raised from the dead, and live forever in heaven.
This is a difficult terrain to navigate, for the promise of eternal life recalls the events of Genesis 3, when the ‘crafty’ serpent, tempting Eve to eat of the fruit of the forbidden tree, lies twice. God had given Adam this commandment: “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat, for in the day you eat of it you will surely die.” The serpent’s first lie is this: “You will not surely die.” And his second lie is this: “You will be like God.” Believing these two lies to be the truth constitutes death; nothing in creation dies, until we reject the wisdom of God. And now Jesus, who is on his way to Jerusalem and Golgotha, to reverse the sentence of death that has been carried out, says almost the same thing as did the serpent.
Sometimes we are deceived, because the closer a lie is to the truth, the craftier its falsehood. This is why Jesus uses symbols to convey the truth: to profoundly distinguish his word from the serpent’s. Symbols will carry greater meaning and weight than the he-said-she-said nature of facts.
Symbols are an especially fitting way to talk about heavenly things, because both are by nature expansive; they have the mysterious property of always having spare room. Most mysteries, in the process of our comprehension, are replete with dead ends and surprise twists that intensify acuity until the truth is realized in a moment of ecstasy. Salt preserves the body against decay, but when the salt loses its saltness, it no longer keeps out the worm. We think we understand the meaning of the saying of Jesus, but we overlooked the question Jesus asked, “wherewith will ye season it?”
Salt from the Dead Sea, as Pliny the Elder observed, could “lose its savory quality and become insipid.” Impurities, such as gypsum, could give salt “a stale and alkaline taste.”[ii] Moisture could ruin salt. The question Jesus asks, “wherewith will ye season it?” is rhetorical. Salt that has lost its saltness is good for nothing; it can’t be restored.
Symbols have a habit of changing with meaning. When Jesus says, “everybody will be salted with fire,” he shows us how salt can be changed into fire. There are three kinds of fire: the salted fire, the fire of salt, and the saltless fire. Salted fire can be the pain and suffering we experience in the normal course of our human lives. Salted fire can be contained or consuming; it is the fire of self-renunciation, an element of sacrifice, “the salt of the covenant,” that we find mentioned in Leviticus: “You shall season all your grain offerings with salt. You shall not let the salt of the covenant with your God be missing from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt” (Lv 2:13 (LXX)). The “salt of the covenant” is designated in Numbers as the priest’s offering: “Whatever is set aside from the holy offerings the Israelites present to the LORD I give to you and your sons and daughters as your perpetual share. It is an everlasting covenant of salt before the LORD for both you and your offspring In Jewish law, sacrifices could not be offered without salt. The disciples are making a sacrifice, therefore we understand Jesus to be saying, your entrance into a life of self-renunciation and service to the world will only succeed if your sacrifice is salted.
Jesus is shepherding the disciples back to their path. The fire of salt, which is the second kind of salt, turns us around; the fire of salt is repentance. As last week the disciples were sidetracked by arguing about who was the greatest among them, this week they are sidetracked by miracle workers who do not follow Jesus but use his name for their own vainglory. Jesus says leave them be, for it is possible that they might be saved through their actions. To give offense and to take offense are equally self-destructive.
In the first two types of fire, we are refined, so we endure (Mal 3:2). The sacrifice and repentance of the disciples, for the sake of the world, are life-preserving. The third kind of fire, the saltless fire, is the fire of rot. The saltless fire is gehenna, “the fire that shall never be quenched, where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.” This is the Judgment Fire, the reverse of the refiner’s fire. When we hate, when we remain aloof from love, we consign themselves to the fire that is not quenched, the place “where worms don’t die and the fire never goes out.”
The refiner’s fire is as a preserving salt.[iii] The disciples are salted from within, so their bodies will not rot, and they they will not die, but inherit the Kingdom of God. The saying, “For everyone will be salted with fire,” is best approached in the context of the whole truth: “Salt is good.” The refiner’s fire is the mercy of God, the release from pain and suffering, scandal, and all conflict within; because of the refiner’s fire, we can be “at peace with one another.” The salt of the covenant is the Jesus baptism, “with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matt 3:11).[iv]
In Matthew’s Gospel, during his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls his disciples “salt of the earth.” By the sacrifice we make, when we hear the word of God, we are preserved from the all the vices that arise from pride. Theophylact says, “Just as salt preserves meat, and prevents worms from breeding within it, so do words of teaching, if they are astringent, shrink the fleshliness of carnal men, and prevent the worm that never sleeps from breeding within them.”[v]
The curious use of salt always remains a mystery, because the saltness of this salt is a supernatural quality. “Look within for your salt” brings to mind the Jesus baptism, the inauguration of the Messianic rule, when the Holy Spirit takes up its abode within the church. Salt is good, Jesus says; is he referring to himself? The use of salt in the sacrificial life of Israel was intended to preserve the covenant Israel had made with Yahweh. In 2nd Chronicles we read, “Don’t you know that the LORD, the God of Israel, has given the kingship of Israel to David and his descendants forever by a covenant of salt?” Jesus’ curious use of salt, as it turns out, encompasses salvation history. Surprisingly, in perhaps its final twist, salt preserves the individual salvation of the disciples not for their own sakes, but for the Glory of God, which is the salvation of the whole of creation.
Salt is poured into us when we are baptized with “the pleasing and preserving grace of the Holy Spirit.”[vi] It causes us to remember the faithfulness of God; as in Leviticus, “the salt of the covenant” recalls God’s promises to his people. Salt is a sign of the goodness of God; as the salt of the earth, it brings out the full taste of experience. In the teachings of Jesus and through the lives of his disciples, salt preserves the world from decay and humility from pride. Let us be at peace with one another; let us have salt within us.
[i] see Mark Kurlansky, Salt: A World History.
[ii] Lane, The Gospel of Mark, p.350
[iii] Henry Alford, The New Testament for English Readers, Vol 1, p. 256
[iv] Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Mark 9:48-10:1
[v] The Gospel According to St. Mark, p.81