Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
“You are the salt of the earth.” (Matt 5:13)
Jesus addressed this word to the apostles and to the crowds. It is a word for all of us. It is a word for the whole Church. What does it mean for the Church to be the salt of the earth?
I just returned from NYC, where it recently snowed and temperatures were at or below freezing each day. We noticed white salt marks on most of the cars, and patches of salt on the sidewalks and roads as we traveled around the city.
There was salt on the ground because The City pours salt before, during, and after snow. Salt is used as a safety precaution to prevent dangerous conditions, especially car collisions. This is because salt helps to reduce the amount of ice on the ground, and keep the streets safer for cars, bikes, and pedestrians.
Salt reduces ice on the streets because when salt mixes with water, it lowers the freezing point. That means that pure water will freeze at 32° F (0° C), but if you add salt, you will also need to make it colder before that liquid will turn into ice.
On the other hand, salt also has the ability to raise the boiling point of water. This is kitchen chemistry. You can see this effect in action when you boil pasta. If you add salt to the water, it takes longer for the burner to help the water reach the boiling point. Pure water will boil at 212° F (100° C), but when you add salt, you need more heat to bring it to a boil into water vapor.
These two properties of salt -- lowering the freezing point and raising the boiling point -- are helpful analogies for understanding why Jesus said that the Church is the salt of the earth.
Salt Lowers the Freezing Point
Salt helps keep the water in motion, which prevents it from slowing down to a freeze. Salt has this effect on water by buffering the water molecules.
First, you need to understand how ice forms. Once you reach the freezing point, some water molecules slow down until their electrons bind them together. The ice spreads whenever liquid water touches the ice crystals. One stops and the others stop too.
When you add a substance like salt to the water, the salt molecules block the water molecules from interlocking. Salt prevents the water from slowing down to a frozen stop.
Likewise, the church is called to go into the world and call people to action for justice and righteousness. The Church must do all in its power to avoid stagnation. We cannot be a people who rest on our laurels in the face of urgent needs. We resist the temptation to laziness, inaction, and fear. When the world around us would have us freeze up, stop moving, and stop fighting for change, we are the salt of the earth.
As God said to the Prophet Isaiah, “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins” (Isaiah 58:1). And again, through St. Paul, “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you!” (Ephesians 5:14, NIV).
We lower the freezing point. We make it more difficult for the world to ignore the cries of the helpless, poor, and needy. We speak the truth to power in love. We agitate for the change that the world needs.
This is a means of protecting the world from danger. Ice is dangerous because it is hard to see and can cause major automobile collisions. Ice causes things to slip and lose traction. We add salt to avoid producing sneaky, injury-prone
The Church is meant to be a voice of truth to the world. It speaks in behalf of those whose voices are suppressed by the powerful. The Church should prevent our society from covering over oppression and persecution of the poor and needy. Salt is our reminder to stay active and engaged in the politics of our society. The Church is salt because we need to stay woke.
This is why it is so important that the Church speak out in favor of refugees. Refugees travel across international boundaries because they are escaping war, famine, persecution and other unspeakable evils. These are people who need sanctuary and protection. It may not be the United States of America’s responsibility to take on migrants, but it sure seems like a Christian one. We are a nation that has so much and keeps so much for itself. It is a small thing to share this abundance with others who comes to this land seeking asylum.
Salt Raises the Boiling Point
Salt also prevents water from moving so fast that it boils and disappears. Salt gets in the way as the water molecules heat up and move faster.
Water boils when, at high temperatures, the water molecules move so fast that they collide into one another and dissipate into the air.
Salt allows the water to remain a liquid at high temperatures. It prevents water from getting so raucous and chaotic that it disperses.
Here is the other side of the Church’s role in the world. We are to do all in our power to keep people together. We need to be in motion, fighting for justice and righteousness. But we also have to fight to maintain peace and unity.
In times of great tension and conflict, it is easy for people to boil over with in-fighting, gossip, and faction-forming. The temptation is that when the going gets tough, we separate and divide. We evaporate and go our separate ways.
But the Church is the salt of the earth. We must raise the boiling point, and make it more difficult to split up and run away. The Book of Common Prayer [BCP] sums up the Church’s mission like so: “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP, 855).
The last several years have been a tumultuous time in the USA’s political landscape. The 2016 Election cycle was especially chaotic and polarized. Public rhetoric has grown more and more divisive. We are less able to have polite and civil dialogue, where we “respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP 305). Even in the midst of disagreement, Americans are having a tough time remembering that we are on the same team.
And this goes beyond national politics. All human beings share one earth. God has made us all of one blood. We have to cooperate with other nations to form a more just and verdant world. We cannot become so focused on our own interests that we oppress and suppress the needs of others, or the needs of the rest of creation.
The important thing to remember is this: Salt does not change the temperature. Salt doesn’t make the atmosphere less challenging or rife with ideological and political disagreements. Rather, it changes the water. It makes us able to stay unified as the heat rises. Salt is our reminder to live as peacemakers in a violent world. The Church is salt because it works for unity and love.
So, Church, let us rise to our great calling to live as the Salt of the Earth. Let us speak the truth in the face of injustice, and let us call the world to unity and love. Let us do so in the Name of Jesus Christ, our Life, our Peace, and our Hope. Amen.
The Book of Common Prayer. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. (See also www.bcponline.org).
Carr, Karen Eva. “What is Ice? – Simple Chemistry.” Revised 31 January 2017. http://quatr.us/chemistry/atoms/ice.htm.
Senese, Fred. “Why Does Salt Melt Ice?” General Chemistry Online! Revised 17 August 2015. http://antoine.frostburg.edu/chem/senese/101/solutions/faq/why-salt-melts-ice.shtml.