“You Are the Salt of the Earth” (Matthew 5:13): Influence or Invitation?
Cultural influence and societal impact cannot be used as a barometer of the “saltiness” enjoined in Matthew 5:13. Inasmuch as the church is faithful in “making disciples of all nations: baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (28:19–20), the unparalleled flavor of the kingdom of God, with the Savior-King himself, will be present to the end of the age.
Jesus identifies the disciples as “the salt of the earth” (Matt 5:13), which many commentators understand as a call for believers to be a part of preserving and influencing human society for the good. This article argues that “salt of the earth” is to be read as the church’s calling to participate in the flavor of the redemptive kingdom of heaven, and by extension to invite those outside to share in the feast of the new creation reality. This reading interprets the metonymic “salt” saying in light of the new temple theme in the Sermon on the Mount.
Samin Nosrat in her terrific culinary book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat writes, “James Beard, the father of modern American cookery, once asked, ‘Where would we be without salt?’ I know the answer: adrift in a sea of blandness. If only one lesson of this book stays with you, let it be this: salt has a greater impact on flavor than any other ingredient.” Nosrat asserts, “in fact, we’re hardwired to crave salt to ensure we get enough of it.”1
Christians understand “the salt of the earth” as one of the master-metaphors of our relationship to wider human society. Whenever the church’s witness with respect to the unbelieving world is discussed, our calling as “salt and light” is often one of the first identifications to be invoked, and rightly so. The Lord Jesus designates his disciples as the “salt of the earth” and “light of the world” (Matt 5:13–14) immediately following the mountain-top benediction he pronounces upon them in the Beatitudes (Matt 5:1–12). If the Beatitudes are the kingdom constitution, then being “salt and light” is how the citizens of the kingdom are to walk in holy-distinction from the course of a world that has its own charter centered in the sinful self with its deceitful desires (cf. Eph 2:2, 4:22).
Because it is such a foundational image, understanding the nature and purpose the image of “salt” in Matthew 5:13 is vital. In this article I argue that the church fulfills her calling as “the salt of the earth” in serving as the taste of the kingdom of heaven, and that in doing so the body of Christ invites the world to the feast of life in the kingdom. Put differently, “you are the salt of the earth” is not referring to the flavor and seasoning believers bring to human life and society. It is rather to be taken as signifying the beginnings of the heavenly banquet whose foretaste is found in the church of Christ. Like the pomegranates, figs, and grapes brought back to Israel in the wilderness by the spies (Num 13:23, 26), believers’ communion in life as the ‘salt of the earth’ is a proleptic experience of the fullness of the age to come.2
The related designation in Matthew 5:14, “you are the light of the world,” is consistent with the invitational dimension I will argue also applies to the salt in 5:13. What is the purpose of the light, and why is the “city set on a hill”? The answer: “that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (5:16 ESV). In other words, the goal is for those who see the light reflected in the disciples will add their voices to the kingdom chorus and join the procession to Zion. Those in the darkness who encounter the lighthouse are to ascend the hill to the source of the shining: “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth; and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Isa 60:2–3, emphasis mine). Meredith Kline asserts: “the mission of the old menorah-temple and that of the new menorah-church alike is to summon men out of all nations to the holy city on Har Magedon (whether the old earthly, typological Jerusalem or the new, heavenly Jerusalem), to call them on a faith pilgrimage to the altar of atonement and the throne of grace. The mission of the menorah community, old and new, is to light the way to the Father’s house.”3
Similarly, the purpose of the disciples acting as salt is to call the nations to come to the table-fellowship of the kingdom of God. Here too Jesus is fulfilling the word of the prophets in announcing the beginning of the eschatological banquet: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined” (Isa 25:6). Later in the Gospel, Jesus announces in light of the Gentile centurion’s faith, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 8:11). Thus I maintain that the salt-keeping life of the disciples is an invitation for this grand final feast, just as the shining of the light is a glimpse of the eternal light of the Lamb in glory (cf. Rev 19:7; 21:23).
1. Salt as Fertilizer?
Anthony Bradley in a provocatively titled article, “You Are the Manure of the Earth,” makes the case that the agricultural use of salt-as-fertilizer is the best way to take Luke 14:34–35 (a parallel passage to Matt 5:13). Bradley states, “If we are supposed to be salt in the agricultural sense, that means we are supposed to get messy and to go where nothing is growing right now.”4 But is scattering salt on the ground (like Johnny Appleseed scattering seeds hither and yon) really a plausible way to take this metaphor? Wouldn’t scattering seed (cf. Matt 13:1–23) be the more fitting metaphor if fecundity and growth is in view? Bradley reaches this conclusion partly because Jesus says that if the salt has lost its taste, “it is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away” (Luke 14:35). It is clear however that Jesus is referring in verse 35 not to good salt but to bad salt. In a manner of speaking, flavorless salt is of no benefit whatsoever, not even to be used as fertilizer. But it does not follow that the “good salt” was originally intended to be utilized as plant food. The Lukan teaching is that the ‘worth’ of salt-less salt is even less than manure.
Regarding taking the image of salt as a form of fertilizer, W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann comment, “Though salts of various kinds are necessary to the fertility of the soil, oversalination can and does effectively render land infertile—as evidenced by the ancient primitive action of sowing an enemy’s land with salt.”5 The reading of salt as fertilizer then would depend on a distinction in the quantity of the salt sprinkled on the ground: too much would bring death, not life! With respect to sprinkling salt, neither a soldiers’ martial act nor a farmers’ applying a form of ‘miracle-grow’ to the soil is in view in Matt 5:13 or Luke 14:34–35.
2. Salt as Preservation?
Based on the salt as seasoning approach, there is a fairly strong tradition of taking “salt” in Matthew 5:13 as a preservative agent. Before modern refrigeration, salt was one of the primary means by which meat was kept in edible condition. Stemming from this, there is a reading which proposes the church serves in a sustaining and upholding function, so that because of believers’ “faithful presence,” the world organized around unbelief does not become as rotten as it otherwise would. Augustine comments on Matthew 5:13: “If ye, by means of whom the nations in a measure are to be preserved [from corruption], through the dread of temporal persecutions shall lose the kingdom of heaven, where will be the men through whom error may be removed from you, since God has chosen you, in order that through you He might remove the error of others?”6 Origen likewise observes,
Salt is useful for many purposes in human life! What need is there to speak about this?
Now is the proper time to say why Jesus’ disciples are compared with salt. Salt preserves meats from decaying into stench and worms. It makes them edible for a longer period. They would not last through time and be found useful without salt. So also Christ’s disciples, standing in the way of the stench that comes from the sins of idolatry and fornication, support and hold together this whole earthly realm.”7
John Stott in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount also reflects this perspective:
God has established certain institutions in his common grace, which curb man’s selfish tendencies and prevent society from slipping into anarchy. Chief among these are the state (with its ability to frame and enforce laws) and the home (including marriage and family life). These exert a wholesome influence in the community. Nevertheless, God intends the most powerful of all restraints to be his own redeemed, regenerate, and righteous people.8
R.V.G. Tasker comments,“The disciples are to be a moral disinfectant in a world where moral standards are low, constantly changing, or non-existent.”9 In this paradigm, there is a “staying power” that the church exercises, in that God through his people stays certain deleterious effects of evil and the degradation that would otherwise occur without the presence of the salt.
To take this a step further, others maintain the salt image “means simply to make an impact on the world.”10 The statement underscores that “disciples are to make the world a better place.”11 Some in the Neo-Calvinist tradition in particular suggest that salt has not only preservative qualities but even transformative potency. Scott Hoezee exclaims, “The result of all your piety must be pouring yourself out onto this earth so as to bring out life’s complex and beautiful flavors.”12 From this vantage point, salt (supernaturally) activates the latent goodness in human culture, and awakens the dormant potentialities within it: Christians then would legitimately expect to “bring out the best” in others.
There are some considerable objections that can be raised against taking salt in Matthew 5:13 to refer to societal preservation (or transformation). For one, in the Noahic covenant, God had already promised to uphold the basic order of society. The Lord by providence through this covenant keeps steady the pillars of the earth and its inhabitants (cf. Ps 75:3). David VanDrunen writes,
In Genesis 9 God entered into a covenant with both the natural order and the human race, promising to uphold and preserve his creation, albeit in fallen form. God promised to uphold the regularity of the cosmic order and reaffirmed the nature of humanity as his own image, and thereby continues to reveal his law by nature. Genesis 9 indicates that this natural law provides at least a basic, minimal ethic designed for the preservation of the social order.13
To view the church as one of the pillars of “common grace” both undersells its holy status and calling and also fails to appreciate the basic terms of restraint and stability previously established by God in the covenant with all creation instituted after the Noahic flood.
Secondly and more pointedly, for the metaphor of the “salt as seasoning for culture” to work, the second half of the metaphor, “the earth” must be understood as the ‘meat’ (or fish or other victuals) that prior to seasoning is in essentially edible condition in the first place. After all, for all its potency, salt cannot make flavorful or consumable what are already spoiled goods. This dilemma is exemplified in Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s comments on Matthew 5:13:
“Ye are the salt of the earth.” What does that imply? It clearly implies rottenness in the earth; it implies a tendency to pollution and to becoming foul and offensive. That is what the Bible has to say about this world. It is fallen, sinful and bad. Its tendency is to evil and to wars. It is like meat which has a tendency to putrefy and to become polluted. It is like something which can only be kept wholesome by means of a preservative or antiseptic.14
The distinction between being rotten and tending to rottenness would seem critical in light of how Lloyd-Jones understands the purpose of the salt-image:
The principal function of salt is to preserve and to act as an antiseptic. Take, for instance, a piece of meat. There are certain germs on its surface, perhaps in its very substance, which have been derived from the animal, or from the atmosphere, and there is the danger of its becoming putrid. The business of the salt which is rubbed into that meat is to preserve it against those agencies that are tending to its putrefaction.15
But how can it be maintained on the one hand that the earth (i.e., the fallen world) is spoiled in sin, while at the same time advancing the notion that salt prevents spoilage? If the point of preservation is to keep the edible goods fit for consumption, then even a minimal amount of decomposition and decay would be unacceptable. If the salt metaphor of Matthew 5:13 is indeed intended as a preservative, the salt could not be applied to already rancid meat, because then like the flavorless salt of v. 13b, the meat too would be worthless and have to be thrown out.
3. Leavening the Earth?
Ulrich Luz writes, “salt is not for itself; it is seasoning for food. In the same way the disciples are there not for themselves but for the earth.”16 Grant Osborne also takes τὸ ἅλας τῆς γῆς as an objective genitive: “the earth is ‘salted’ by the believer.”17 So too Craig Blomberg: “in light of the countercultural perspectives enunciated in the Beatitudes, it would be easy to assume the Jesus was calling his followers to a separatistic or quasi-monastic life-style. Here Jesus proclaims precisely the opposite. Christians must permeate society as agents of redemption.”18