Salt For the Earth: Jesus’ Army of Environmentalists
I’ve posted more than once lately about my appreciation for the Bible study that a small group from our church is doing of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Some of the observations have been helpful in a deeper understanding of the sermon. But, what I’ve really enjoyed is a number of indirect connections that should have been obvious a long time ago (I went to seminary after all!). I’ve posted earlier on what it means to “get right with God.” Today, I’m writing about Jesus’ phrase “salt of the earth.”
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.” There is something about salt losing its saltiness which the study helped me understand, but otherwise it’s a pretty simple metaphor. I’ve used it to talk about the Christian call to “enhance the flavor” of the earth. I’ve also used salts ability to block bitter flavors in food to illustrate the Christian call to address bitterness in society. But, the main point of the phrase likely has more to do with preservation.
In the absence of refrigeration, people in Jesus’ day used salt to preserve food. Salt can preserve meat and fish and even vegetables by preventing the growth of bacteria, fungi and other bad stuff. In other words, it prevents decay. The obvious application of this metaphor is to call Jesus followers to be the kind of people who preserve and prevent decay. Most people, the study authors included, take this to mean moral decay. Considering its place in the Sermon On the Mount, I’m sure that there is some truth to that. But, when the speaker on the video spoke about decay, my mind went in a different direction.
For creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to DECAY and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. — Romans 8:19–21
I’m wondering if, when Jesus calls his followers “salt of the earth,” that he has a more environmental concern in mind. The passage from Romans is about the yearning of the created world, the earth, to be set free from the bad stuff that’s causing it to decay. That yearning is supposed to be met when the children of God (i.e. followers of Jesus) show up on the scene. I wonder if, as a person coats their meat in salt to preserve it, God is coating the earth with Christians to preserve creation and rescue it from decay.
One of the reasons I think this might be true is because Jesus said “salt of the EARTH” rather than “salt of the world” (as he did in the following passage “light of the world”). “World” can refer to the creation itself, but it can also have a more abstract meaning (e.g. don’t follow the ways of the world). Earth, on the other hand, is more a more natural word. It has more grit. It’s about the dirt. Again, I wonder if Jesus was letting his hearers know that part of their calling was to work the earth and help it recover. The first book of the Bible says that the “ground was cursed” because of Adam. I wonder if, in Jesus, the ground is being blessed. Is the dirt finding salvation too?
In case you think I might be making too much of this, let me draw your attention to another verse:
“The nations raged, but your wrath has come, and the time for judging the dead, for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints and all who fear your name, both small and great, and for DESTROYING THOSE WHO DESTROY THE EARTH.” — Revelation 11:18
I’ve known about that verse ever since I participated in a farm co-op. The owner of the farm was not a church-goer, but she loved to share that verse with them. It stemmed from her frustration that Christians seemed to be the hardest to convince of the need to take better care of the earth. I found the verse to be surprising to say the least. But, Romans teaches us that creation has been groaning, it has been suffering severe pains. It seems pretty clear to me that Jesus was calling his followers to ease that suffering.
As I poked around the internet for origins of the phrase “salt of the earth,” I came across some mentions of “salting the earth.” Apparently, it was a military tactic following the defeat of an enemy and the sacking of a city. Salt would be poured on the earth as a symbolic curse over those who would dare to inhabit it in the future. Salt would also be poured of over the farmlands to ruin crops and prevent future growth. It would cause the dirt to suffer and prevent its ability to produce and create (that may be more myth than reality, but you can decide for yourself: http://kiwihellenist.blogspot.com/2016/12/salting-earth.html).
It leaves me to wonder again if Jesus is using that familiar idea to flip the script. I wonder if Jesus is sending out an army of environmentalists to bless the dirt rather than curse it; to set it free rather than cause it to suffer. The images of new growth, flourishing, and fruit are used to describe the experience of salvation that humans experience in Jesus. It seems to me that those images apply equally to creation itself. It seems to me that when we say that God loves the world, we are not to mean only the people in it, but the dirt.
Dr. Willie Jennings said, “We are joined at the site of the dirt. And the dirt is our kin. From dust we came and to dust we will return. We are of the dirt. Even geographic distance and the difference of strange tongues cannot thwart this truth. We are creatures bound together.” Jesus is sprinkling the world with Christians to preserve creation. In the Sermon On the Mount, Jesus is salting the earth by sending out an army of environmentalists to block bitterness and enhance the sweetness of the dirt itself. The children of God are here FOR the earth, to care for our kin.