When Jesus came down from the mountain and defined his new people in the Sermon on the Mount, he didn’t pick the obvious comparable language from Exodus 19. Rather than “kingdom of priests” or “holy nation,” he took the everyday metaphors of salt and light.
Light is easier, ironically, to get our hands around. Public proclamation, public demonstration of God’s grace and holiness, truth and power and beauty for all to see – light, we work with. All the money in my wallet says “light” shows up in church and ministry names at least 10 times more than “salt.”
But if we have an idea of what a “ministry of light” looks like, what do we do with the “ministry of salt?” What is this other calling Jesus has for us?
The mission: preserve and seal
We use light now for what they used it for then: to give a signal (like a beacon or lighthouse) and to show things as they are. We primarily use salt for flavoring now; but in antiquity, salt’s chief use was to preserve against decay. Salt was mined like coal and cut into blocks for use; the block of salt (halite, which we still use to de-ice our sidewalks but don’t eat) would be rubbed into meat, grinding the salt inside, to stop the growth of bacteria.
The “ministry of salt,” then, is a world-preserving ministry. Christians dig ourselves into families, communities, and institutions, and fight back the corrupting effects of sin. We have grand historical examples: the rescue of infants exposed to die unwanted; the preservation of learning in the collapse of antiquity; the breaking of the slave trade in modern Britain.
But, as Jesus said of a cup of cold water, the ministry of salt happens on smaller scales too. Just in my church, I’ve seen people help friends fight to keep their marriages alive; care for families under loss; tutor, mentor, even take in children in critical home circumstances; join the boards of struggling neighborhoods. The ministry of salt seeks ways to preserve individual and social lives.
To go further, salt shows up in some significant relationships in the Old Testament:
You shall season all your grain offerings with salt. You shall not let the salt of the covenant with your God be missing from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt. (Leviticus 2:13)
God’s covenant to provide food for the Aaronic priests (Numbers 18:19) and his covenant to keep the Davidic line (2 Chronicles 13:5) are both described as “covenants of salt.” In Ezra, those opposed to the rebuilding of the temple told Artaxerxes they were bound to his honor because “we eat the salt of the palace.” Perhaps because of salt’s preserving nature, and definitely due to its being precious in the day, sharing salt with another was a way of sealing oneself to them.
If Jesus’ followers are the salt, then, part of our mission is to “seal” our little corners of the world to God: not just to fight decay, but to consecrate. We are here to see as many other individuals, communities, and institutions sealed to God as we can.
Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.
– Philippians 2:17
If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband.
– 1 Corinthians 7:13-14a
Whatever context we find ourselves in – a family, a church, a nation – we are called to see as many dimensions of it submitted to God as we can.
The method: self-sacrificial contact
Salt does not work from a distance. To do its preserving and consecrating work, it must be rubbed right into the contours or “hidden” into the object it works on.
In the same way, the “ministry of salt” requires folding ourselves into the lives or the institutions we want to see changed. Like Daniel, Nehemiah, or Esther, we redeem from the inside by knowing and in a sense “belonging” to parts of an unbelieving world. We work to maintain relationships with friends and family members; we participate in our neighborhoods, work culture, and social institutions.
And just as a block of salt must be diminished to fulfill its purpose, we too will have to “spend ourselves” to be present to others and work for their good. This quote from ND Wilson always gives me shivers:
“Lay your life down. Your heartbeats cannot be hoarded. Your reservoir of breaths is draining away. You have hands, blister them while you can. You have bones, make them strain—they can carry nothing in the grave. You have lungs, let them spill with laughter. … I can be giving my fingers, my back, my mind, my words, my breaths, to my wife and my children and my neighbors, or I can grasp after the vapor and the vanity for myself, dragging my feet, afraid to die and therefore afraid to live.” – ND Wilson, Death by Living
If we are worn down anyway by time and chance, how better a way to go than enriching the lives of others? The ministry of salt is a self-spending rather than self-preserving life.
The power: a different kind of life
It could be objected that the life described above – disappearing into the world -is just as likely to deconvert Christians as convert non-Christians. Or, to drape pious language around mere worldliness and spiritual cowardice.
The first objection isn’t without merit, and the second happens. But Jesus’ cryptic warning points us toward how a ministry of salt can be sustained:
But if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.
– Matthew 5:13b
This is about more than taste. A block of halite (“salt” to them) was a mix of useful salt crystals and useless other minerals. Once the actual salt had been ground out, the grains of other stuff in the “salt” were of no more use than sand. The Greek word rendered “lost its taste” here in other contexts means “become foolish” or “become useless.” A block of “salt” with no more salt crystals is worthless.
Jesus is telling his followers that they have something special inside them, that makes them different from others, that can give preserving and sanctifying life to the world. In another use of the image, recorded in Mark, Jesus says, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another” (9:50). What is the real salt that keeps the block of salt salty?
Jesus is talking about the life of the Holy Spirit.
As Pentecost and the rest of the New Testament story show, the animating, empowering, convicting, converting life that pulls Jew, Greek, and barbarian, rich and poor, slave and free into a multicultural kingdom of priests is the life of Jesus, mediated by the Holy Spirit. The transformative power that withers sin and blooms godliness is the life of the Holy Spirit. The stink of death to the idolatrous and proud, the savor of life to the humble and meek, is the life of the Spirit in individual Christians and in the Church.
Salt dies as it lives well. Paul twice compared his life’s work to being “poured out like a drink offering” over the congregations he was used to found. Anyone who’s given themselves into the need of another knows the drain, whether pastors or social workers or stay-at-home moms.
We must be filled with a life outside our own to salt our little corner of Creation. We must be re-salted as we go. However we interpret the warning, the call is clear: salt, and be salted again.
The ministry of salt requires that we be filled and renewed by the Holy Spirit. We must have his life worked into our hearts as thoroughly as we work ourselves into the world. We need him to plant and grow the Word in our hearts; to satiate our souls with God’s presence in prayer; to cut away our idols and set our worship on God.
This passage from George Muller’s Narrative shows how the life of the Spirit makes a life of service possible:
According to my judgement the most important point to be attended to is this: above all things see to it that your souls are happy in the Lord. Other things may press upon you, the Lord’s work may even have urgent claims upon your attention, but I deliberately repeat, it is of supreme and paramount importance that you should seek above all things to have your souls truly happy in God Himself! Day by day seek to make this the most important business of your life … the secret of all true effectual service is joy in God, having experimental acquaintance and fellowship with God Himself.
It’s possible for a well-intentioned Christian to serve and serve, knowing how great the needs of the world are, and neglect the need to be re-salted by the Spirit. But we are finite, dependent beings, and were designed to be filled as we give. Let yourself be mortal and dependent. Serve, give, be poured out; but let yourself be enlivened by the Spirit as you do. Let yourself rest in the grace of God; let yourself be sanctified as you sanctify; that you may have decades to see the glory of God fill your little corner of Creation.