There are some puzzling aspects to Jesus’ statement in today’s Gospel, “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” (Matthew 5:13)
In the ancient world, conquering armies occasionally would sow salt into the earth as a sign of the total subjugation of a conquered people. The practice probably originated as a religious purification ritual, and evolved later into a public warning against rebuilding a fallen city.
It is unlikely that middle eastern peasants during Jesus’ lifetime would have sown salt in the earth. Salt inhibits the growth of plants. It would not have been a wise choice for people dependent on local agriculture to put salt on the ground.
The second unusual aspect of this saying is that salt does not lose its taste. Salt remains salty both in water solution and when mixed with solids. Nor does it lose its flavor with age. The bronze age salt mines in Europe’s alpine region contain deposits that are millions of years old, and still produce marketable salt. It might appear that this well known saying of Jesus makes no sense.
One proposed explanation of these unusual statements is based on peasant cooking practices in ancient Judea. Recent biblical scholarship indicates that ancient middle eastern ovens used blocks of salt as a catalyst; the salt block helped to create sufficient heat for baking bread and cooking meals when using the poor quality fuels that were available to peasants. Peasants in the ancient middle east would have had no reason to salt the earth; they would, however, have had the regular experience of using, and replacing, a salt block that catalyzed an earth oven.
In light of this scholarship we can surmise that the meaning of Jesus’ words was, “You are the catalyst salt of an earth oven.” If this was the intended meaning of Jesus’ words, it is similar to other sayings of Jesus about the transformative effect of the coming of God’s Kingdom. (Matthew 13:33)
Obviously, the proposed interpretation of the saying in today’s Gospel rests on speculation. It is, however, very consistent with many of Jesus’ sayings that portray him as the proximate cause of transformative change for human nature. Even when read as pure apocalyptic, this saying is a reference to the radical change of heart that is required in order to be a disciple of Jesus.
Happily for us, Jesus provided an explanation of the two brief metaphors he used. He said, “Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” (Matthew 5:16) Regardless of how we interpret the details, these two sayings are about the obligation of Jesus’ disciples to give credible evidence of their love for God. In the Scriptures, love of God is considered real only when it is expressed as love of neighbor.
This weekend we will hear credible witness about the good deeds done at Pinellas Hope by Catholic Charities. Pinellas Hope is a homeless shelter that provides housing, meals, mentoring and counseling for our neighbors who are struggling to make a secure life for themselves and their families. Our support of the Annual Pastoral Appeal is one very important way in which we as individuals, and as a parish, are catalysts for positive change.
Your participation in the Annual Pastoral Appeal makes a significant difference in the lives of tens of thousands of people. The Annual Pastoral Appeal supports religious education for children, legal help for migrants and immigrants, mentoring and care for single mothers and a host of other charitable services. This year All Saints has a campaign goal of $102,408.
The parishioners of All Saints have always been very generous to the Annual Pastoral Appeal. I’m sure that this year will be no different. Your generosity is truly a transformative influence in our local community and throughout the Diocese. By contributing to the Annual Pastoral Appeal you improve the lives of other people and you give credible witness to your love of God. Please give your prayerful consideration to supporting our 2017 campaign.