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Saltiness: “You are the Salt of the Earth”

Two thousand years ago Yeshua said, “You are the salt of the earth”(Mat 5:13). This phrase has become part of our vernacular, yet its meaning today is very different from Yeshua’s. Were you aware that the meaning has changed?

Yeshua’s admonition for us to take care not lose our ‘saltiness’ is recorded in the three synoptic gospels (the three most similar gospels), in Mat 5:1-13, Mark 9:35-50, and Luke 14:25-35. Most likely He had the ‘covenant of salt’ in mind when he taught His disciples about good salt and worthless salt. “Every grain offering of yours, moreover, you shall season with salt, so that the salt of the covenant of your God shall not be lacking from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt. (Lev. 2:13) In the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), salt represented the permanency of the covenant (salt is a preservative) and the fellowship between the covenant-makers.

Misguided editing?

The salt passages seem to be carelessly dropped into the narrative and lack definition. The editors of my New American Standard Bible (NASB) added subject headings throughout the Bible. Many times these are helpful, but I believe they placed the subject heading in the Matthew passage in the wrong place! Remember, the Bible originally had no capitalization, no punctuation, no chapter divisions, no verse numbers, and NO subject headings. Between verses 12 and 13 of Matthew Ch. 5, the editors added the heading, “Disciples and the World”. This misplaced subject heading threw me off track for many years.  Here is how the headings (in bold) are placed in my NASB.

The Sermon on the Mount; The Beatitudes

Matthew 5:1 When Jesus saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. 2 He opened His mouth and began to teach them, saying, 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they  shall see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. 10 “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Disciples and the World

13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.

The NASB editors obviously did not think that the salt passage belonged with the verses above them, instead they joined this passage with the verses just below them. One can see that these divisions are logical, but by so doing, they separated the admonition to be ‘salty’ from the explanation of just exactly what ‘saltiness’ is.

These ‘salt’ verses immediately follow the Sermon on the Mount, also known as the Beatitudes. Beatitude means extreme blessedness. These proclamations of Jesus were meant to encourage all those who were/are standing firm in their ‘saltiness’ and thus suffering the consequences. Each promise describes a present trial and then a future reward. If a disciple had honestly calculated the ‘cost of discipleship’ and maintained his testimony, he could look forward to all of Yeshua’s “they shalls …”.

Misplaced paragraph

In the Luke passage, the NASB editors added a heading that says, “Discipleship Tested”. In this passage, the editors did not add a misleading heading but they did mislead the reader by putting the ‘salt’ verses in a new paragraph. In this passage Yeshua teaches us to carefully consider the implications and consequences of deciding to follow Him, known as ‘counting the cost’.  Becoming a disciple is much more than a mental/verbal decision to ‘accept Christ’.  Sacrifices must be made, some very painful.  Soul-searching must be done, a ruthless honesty in dealing with idols in the heart (like loving a dear family member more than Yeshua). I get that part. But for many years I did not understand that vs. 34-35, the ones about salt, related to the verses above them; I never understood what the ‘therefore’ was ‘there for’. Because of the misplaced subject heading in Matthew, and the misplaced new paragraph in Luke, it did not make much sense to me until now. Here is how Luke 14:25-35 looks in NASB.

Discipleship Tested

25 Now large crowds were going along with Him; and He turned and said to them, 26 “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. 28 For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32 Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. 33 So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions. 34“Therefore, salt is good; but if even salt has become tasteless, with what will it be seasoned? 35It is useless either for the soil or for the manure pile; it is thrown out. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Luke 14:25-35

This passage is a stern warning to us. Jesus compares a disciple who makes the commitment to follow Him but does not remain faithful, to salt that no longer tastes salty. He says tasteless salt will not help the soil or the compost pile. Let’s dig deeper (pun intended) into these agricultural allusions.

A wonderful thing about the Scriptures is their many layers of meaning. The phrase, “useless for the soil” in v. 35 links Yeshua’s exhortation to ‘stick with it’, or to remain ‘salty’, to His parable of the four soils found in Matthew 13:3-23, Mark 4:3-20, and Luke 8:5-15. Using the rule that Scripture interprets Scripture, we can apply Yeshua’s definitions for ‘word’ and ‘soil’ from the parable of the four soils to our current study. One interpretation of the parable of the four soils is that there are four possible outcomes in mens’ hearts when the gospel is preached. He explained that the seed stands for the Word of God, and the soil represents the hearts of men.

Yeshua’s explanation of the parable of the four soils helps us understand how bad ‘tasteless salt’ is. Since tasteless salt is useless for the soil, then a faltering disciple cannot help enlighten the seeking hearts of men. Likewise, if tasteless salt is useless for the manure pile (compost), we learn that a faltering disciple cannot provide any type of spiritual nutrition (fertilizer) for others.

In Mark’s passage, the ‘salt’ verses immediately follow Jesus’ difficult teaching regarding the ruthless way we are to deal with sin in our lives: “… if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out!” If the sin in my life so overwhelms my testimony, I am like worthless salt.  It would have been better if I had never said I was a believer (salty) in the first place. If somewhere down the road of life I veer off into a ravine or into the woods, He says it would be better if I had not first gotten on that road. Those are difficult words not meant to be taken literally but definitely meant to be taken seriously.

Yeshua addresses “large crowds” in Luke’s ‘salt’ passage, but He addresses only His disciples in the corresponding passages in Matthew and Mark (Mat 5:1-13; Mark 9:35-50). In fact, this teaching only makes sense if you are His disciple. “Salt of the earth” now has a secular definition along with its Biblical definition. What irony that the ‘salt of the earth’ now means the opposite of what it meant two thousand years ago! These days, the ‘salt of the earth’ are the downtrodden, abused, neglected, voiceless peoples of the earth, the very people we are to bless with the true saltiness!