Year A Epiphany 5: salt

If rock salt comes from rocks (hence the salt mines), and sea salt comes from the sea, where does table salt come from?

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” But salt without saltiness is good for nothing, and a light hidden under a bushel sheds no illumination.

There’s an old folk tale about a princess, the youngest of three, as it goes, whose father wanted to test the love of his daughters. He asked each of them how much they loved him. The eldest daughter said, I don’t know, more than gold and silver, and the king was pleased. The second child said something about ponies and rainbows and unicorns – I really don’t remember this part too well – and the king was well satisfied. The youngest daughter, the smart one, said, “I love you more than salt,” and the king was outraged. Salt? The peasants had sufficient salt, the deers licked in from the rocks in the forest, they used it to kill slugs in the royal lettuce garden: salt? It was an insult! So the king banished his daughter from his sight, and what’s more, he outlawed the use of salt throughout all his lands.

It wasn’t long before the king found the need to haul up the castle cook to complain about the food. Everything tasted the same, he complained, nothing popped, nothing sparkled on his tongue any more, everything was bland and blah. The cook, rather fearfully, since he was essentially telling the king how dumb he had been, explained the role of salt in food preparation. It is not, he said, so much that it speaks for itself – sometimes you want salty, for sure – but much more often, it is the salt that brings out the flavours of the other ingredients, and binds them together, and makes them pop and fizzle on your tongue. Without salt, explained the cook, the rainbow had gone out of his flavour palette and everything had turned sepia and insipid. Without salt, the food was sad.

The king realized that his youngest daughter had been telling him of the depth, the breadth, the essence and embrace of her love for him, and he was very sorry that he had rejected her, and that he had banned salt from the kingdom because now he was going to have to pay a lot of money to restock their supplies.

Of course, salt does more than flavour our foods. Salt is a preservative, and a stain remover. It can be used to set the colour of a dyed cloth. It helps ice cream to set. It is used in skin creams and lotions – that Dead Sea mud is full of the stuff. Salt has been used as a disinfectant and even an antibiotic agent for millennia. What parent here hasn’t bathed a child’s scraped knee with salt water, or prescribed a salt water gargle for a sore throat?

You are the salt of the earth: the healers, the soothers, the cleansers, the purifiers. You have the capacity to bring health and wholeness to those around you.

You are the salt of the earth: you are everywhere, you get into everything. You don’t have to be especially strong or dominant, or overwhelming. Sometimes, to be sure, you are the centre of attention, but always you have a vital role in lifting the colours, the flavours, the essence of those around you; you spice up their lives. You make them pop and sparkle.

The letter to the Colossians advises, “Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Let your speech be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.”

Let your speech be seasoned with salt, that is, let it bring out the best in the those to whom you speak. Look for ways to enhance the lives of those around you, not by overwhelming them but by lifting up into the light that which is already good and sound and flavourful in them.

Of course, this time of year, we can’t help noticing that salt can be used to help us on our way, wherever it is we may be going – it lowers the freezing point of water to prevent it from becoming solid ice, so we use it to keep our arterial pathways clear, our highways and our sidewalks.

You are the salt of the earth. You have what it takes to melt a frigid heart.

The prophet says, “Remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil; offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted” – be the salt that the world needs – “then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”

Light, like salt, points beyond itself. Light, like salt, is good in itself, but we notice it the most when it illuminates other things, when it allows us to see the way before us, or chases away the shadows that frighten us; the light shines and something as scruffy as a spider’s web glistens. The light shines, and the very walls around us become beautiful.

“You are the light of the world,” says Jesus. Elsewhere, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.” He shone in the darkness of a fallen creation and showed us the beauty all around us, of God’s love for us. He illuminated a pathway for us, into the kingdom of God. He brought us out of the shadows to stand in sunlight and see for ourselves, all around us, the city of God. We are to shine, not to glory in our own light, but to show others the glory, the mercy and grace of God; to illuminate their lives.

“You are the salt of the earth,” says Jesus. We season the earth, not so that our saltiness can be admired, but to help others to taste the goodness of creation. How are we affirming the essence of others, letting them know that they are made in the image of God, every one of them; healing their hurts and melting their hearts?

To claim the titles of light, of salt, is not to boast in our own properties, but to own our call to bring out the best in those around us, to show them wholeness, health and warmth, and the beauty that lies in the love of God. It is one more way in which Jesus tells us, not only that we are loved, but that we are to love God and our neighbour, with all of our hearts, more than silver and gold, more than rainbows, puppies and ponies, more than salt.

Jesus tells us that we are to season our relationships with respect for the variety of flavours that people come in, with encouragement, to draw out the best in them. We are to season our lives with helpfulness, healthfulness, warmth, comfort, perseverance, not only for our own sakes, but to lead others to the glory of God, to illuminate their pathways, to guide them home.

I suppose if you were to really stretch and twist the metaphor, you could make Peter into rock salt (because his name means Rock). James and John the fishermen might be sea salts. So what does that make us?

altarWhere does table salt come from?

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