Salt, Light, Dung, and Fire

Jesus said to his disciples:
“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.
You are the light of the world.
A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.
Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket;
it is set on a lampstand,
where it gives light to all in the house.
Just so, your light must shine before others,
that they may see your good deeds
and glorify your heavenly Father.”
MT 5:13-16

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.

I find this passage in Matthew’s gospel rather challenging preach. In the Gospels of Mark and Luke, Jesus speaks the same words but he uses them in a very particular context, which readily allows us to comprehend how he is using them. Matthew gives us no such context. Jesus is preaching The Sermon on the Mount and simply seems to throw out this expression that we are salt for the Earth, Light of the World. is it just kind of sits there. And yet, it is a phrase and image which has attached itself into our Collective memory. You know these words. We know this expression. And I cannot help but wonder as I think of Matthew and his own context, knowing that Matthew is the only one of the four gospels really rooted in Judaism, if perhaps Matthew is being very stylistically Jewish in this case. That is, using two different images to re-enforce one meaning. We find that all over the pages in the Old Testament. It is simply a traditional way of Jewish expression. For example, the psalmist sings, “If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand wither and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.” Now, the psalmist is not literally hoping for two physical handicaps. The point the song is making is that if I forget Jerusalem, I forget who I am. I lose my identity. Two images, one point. And it occurred to me that perhaps Matthew is doing the same here.

In Jesus’s day, as in our own, salt has a variety of uses. Including being used as fuel. Even today, if you travel to the Holy Land, and take the road north from Jerusalem, you’ll notice that many of the homes on the side of the road have these brick ovens outside next to them. Those brick ovens are part of a custom that is ancient. In fact, in Jesus’ day, each village had their own common oven. And the fuel for that oven was something more plentiful and easy to obtain rather than would, because wood is not plentiful in the Middle East. So what was used is camel or donkey dung. And, yes, one of the duties of every young girl as she grew up was to learn to go out and collect the camel or donkey dung, mix it with salt, and form patties that would dry out in the sun.

That still takes place in many developing countries today. Dung mixed with salt is their fuel. A slab of salt is placed at the base of these clay ovens, The patty was laid on it. And the salt block would act as a catalyst, helping the dung patties to burn. Eventually, over time, the block of salt would lose its catalytic effect. And, as Jesus said, “it’s good for nothing but to be tossed out and trampled under foot.” So to be salt for the Earth, is to start fires. To be a catalyst for fire. To make things burn. And if Jesus’ disciples do this, igniting a flame, then we are also the light of the world. The two images come together. With one meaning.

Last Sunday, as you left church, you were given a blessed candle. On that candle was the inscription, “go forth and set the world on fire.” Those candles call us to prayer. They also remind us that Jesus calls us to be salt for the Earth, light for the world. And Isaiah tells us what it means to be that Salt and Light, what it means to set the world on fire in our first reading as he speaks about removing oppression from our midst, ending malicious speech, stopping false accusations, sharing our bread with the hungry, welcoming the homeless (which includes the immigrants, the stranger, and the refugee), and clothing the naked. And we do these things not to earn grace, because you can’t earn grace. And we do these things not to win people’s esteem. And we do these things not to feel good about ourselves. We do them, Saint Paul says, “to Proclaim Christ crucified,” and, as Jesus says, “to give Glory to our Heavenly Father.”