The Ministry of Salt

The Ministry of Salt

The ministry of salt requires folding ourselves into the lives or the institutions we want to see changed. Like Daniel, Nehemiah, or Esther, we redeem from the inside by in a sense “belonging” to the world. We maintain relationships with friends and family members; we participate in our neighborhoods, work culture, and social institutions. And just as a block of salt must be diminished to fulfill its purpose, we too will have to spend ourselves to be present to others and work for their good. 

There Israel encamped before the mountain, while Moses went up to God. The Lord called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ (Exodus 19:3-6)

Seeing the crowds, [Jesus] went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: … 13 “You are the salt of the earth … 14 “You are the light of the world. (Matthew 5:1-2, 13-14)

Matthew frames the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus’ “Sinai moment” – where God’s new people meet the divine presence on a mountain to hear the terms of their new relationship with him.

Notice how Jesus describes the identity of his new people. Instead of the old covenant terms “kingdom of priests” and “holy nation,” Jesus uses the everyday metaphors of salt and light to define the identity of his new people.

I’d bet serious money that “light” appears in church and ministry names at least 10 times more frequently than “salt.” Light is easier to “see,” as it were. It sounds more glorious. Public proclamation, public demonstration of God’s grace and holiness, truth and beauty shining on a hill for all to see … we love the “ministry of light.” Let it shine.

But what is the “ministry of salt?” What is this other calling Jesus has for us?

The Mission: Preserve and Seal

We mainly use salt for flavoring now; but in antiquity, its chief use was to preserve against decay. In the ancient near east, salt was mined like coal and cut into small blocks for household use. The blocks contained a mixture of actual salt (halite, which we still use to de-ice our sidewalks but don’t eat) and other minerals. A block of salt would be rubbed into meat, grinding the halite inside, to stop the growth of bacteria. In a world without refrigeration, the preserving power of salt was miraculous.

The “ministry of salt,” then, is a world-preserving ministry. Ministers of salt work themselves into families, institutions, and communities, and fight back the corrupting effects of sin. That means fostering peace and reconciliation; it means training husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers to love their families well; it means giving ourselves to improve the lives of our neighbors and communities. As Matthew Loftus, who lives and writes about the ministry of salt (even if he doesn’t use the term), says:

Every community needs a phalanx of people who take minor leadership roles and simply care for their neighbours. They stand between the established leaders and help mediate what is good and worthwhile to the vulnerable while keeping predators from within and without in check. Without these folks to stand in the middle, though, more people can become vulnerable or predatory.

The ministry of salt has some huge public victories, like the end of gladiatorial slavery in Rome, the abolition of slavery in Britain, and the Civil Rights movement in the US. (The fact that there were many Christians opposing the last two items is its own sad story).

But, as Jesus said of a cup of cold water, the ministry of salt happens on smaller scales too. Just in my church, I’ve seen people help friends fight to keep their marriages alive; people give familial care for widows; people spend hours to tutor, mentor, and even take in children in critical home circumstances. Some of these feel like small victories, and some feel like fighting Galadriel’s “long defeat” against decay. They are all part of the ministry of salt.

Salt also has a sealing effect, which we can see in the Old Testament. It binds relationships.

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. (Leviticus 2:13)

God’s covenant to provide food for the Aaronic priests (Numbers 18:19) and his covenant to keep the Davidic line (2 Chronicles 13:5) are both described as “covenants of salt.” In Ezra, those opposed to the rebuilding of the temple told Artaxerxes they were bound to him because “we eat the salt of the palace.” Perhaps because of salt’s preserving nature, and definitely due to its being precious in the day, sharing salt was a way of sealing oneself to another.

If Jesus’ followers are the salt, then, part of our mission is to “seal” our little corners of the world to God: not just to fight decay, but to consecrate.

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