You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

Matthew 5:13

I’ve been reading through Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship with a good friend and we’re sharing our musings weekly. I’m enjoying it immensely, as I did when I first read it some 30 years ago. Of the many things that have impacted me on this second swipe, Bonhoeffer’s take on the above passage is penetrating. The notion that struck me is underlined:

These words are addressed to the same audience as the beatitudes—to those who are summoned to follow the Crucified in the life of grace. Up to now we must have had the impression that the blessed ones were too good for this world, and only fit to live in heaven. But now Jesus calls them the salt of the earth—salt, the most indispensable necessity of life. The disciples, that is to say, are the highest good, the supreme value which the earth possesses, for without them it cannot live. They are the salt that sustains the earth, for their sake the world exists. (p 129)

In the margin I wrote “Wow! PURPOSE DRIVEN LIFE!” It did not occur to me that the “world exists” for the sake of God’s people and we are actively involved in sustaining and preserving it. Hardly do we imagine that the world and all its splendor was created by God for us! But in fact that is what we find in the Genesis account. The grand finale of the creation days is the appearance of God’s image bearers. On days 1-5 the stage is set, then on day 6 God’s image bearers manifest and are called and commissioned to care for the universe as our domain. Our rule and reign is symbolically portrayed not only in God resting on day 7 but in Adam naming the animals. Now that is some purpose in life! To care for the earth and help preserve it because it is ours.

What does it mean to be the salt of the earth?
In Jesus’s day, salt had a two-fold function: 1) As a preservative to slow decay and 2) as an added ingredient to enhance or magnify the taste of food. This tells me something about how I must engage the world around me. Granted virtues such as beauty, kindness, courage, character, honesty, integrity, civility, and deference (among others) are difficult to find in our culture, but they’re not altogether gone! If I’m going to take seriously my role as “salt of the earth,” then I must embrace my responsibility to slow down the decay by magnifying beauty, kindness, courage, character, honesty, integrity, civility, and deference!

But what about Jesus’s comment regarding salt becoming useless?
Genuine disciples are pure salt and do the work that salt does: purify, enhance. Along with the commission to be salt, however, Jesus issues a warning to ensure one’s efforts do not become contaminated by wrong motives and lose their usefulness. Just as a light is of no use unless it illuminates, so too is salt of no use unless it preserves and enhances. Louw and Nida’s comments are helpful.

Pure salt cannot lose its taste. In the ancient world, however, what was often sold as salt was highly adulterated and the sodium chloride could leach out in humid weather, in which case the residue (normally a form of lime) would be useless. (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains p 51)

Not only are the virtues such as those mentioned above a means of “salting the earth,” but also my speech is of utmost importance. Paul admonishes the Colossian believers to “let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (4:6; see also Matt 12:36; Eph 4:24; Tit 2:8; James 3:1-12). And even the 1st Century stoic Epictetus argued as much “It is dangerous to get into dirty talk. Whenever anything of this sort begins, if you get the opportunity, you might rebuke the person who starts it; or if not, make it clear by begin silent or blushing and scowling that you are displeased by the talk.”

If Bonhoeffer had it right and this earth exists for us, then we are privileged in our purpose to preserve it. I must engage the world in positive ways that point the way to God. I cannot retreat from the world; I must not isolate my faith. Being useful means bringing something unique to the world that it does not already have and is in need of. Being useful means being an agent of change that impedes moral, economic, political, social, cultural, relational, and intellectual decay. Being useful means positively enhancing the world’s goodness and beauty. That is a purpose driven life!

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