People sometimes say disparagingly of some small religious sect: “Oh, they think they are the salt of the earth”! – meaning that they are spiritual snobs who imagine they have got a corner in salvation. Yet salt is just about the humblest of all cooking ingredients, and I am wondering whether the disciples took it as much of a compliment when the Master likened them to a pinch of salt! Rather a blow to their pride I would say. The whole point about salt is that, though a certain amount of it is necessary for health and well-being, and even life, yet it must not be conspicuous in itself. Think of some dish of meat or soup, or a stew, or scrambled eggs, or a plate of spaghetti. Without that pinch of salt, the meal is “weary, stale, flat and unprofitable.” Yet you don’t have to taste the salt. It is retiring and inconspicuous in itself, but brings out the full flavor of the meat and vegetables. This gives a new slant on what we should be doing as the salt of the earth.

A good Christian doesn’t push himself forward. He does not say: “Look at me, everybody, and do as I do – I am holier than you.” That would be like drawing attention to the salt, spilling it all over everything. You can have too much of a good thing, even if it is holy. Salt, to do its work properly, must keep in the background. It brings out the best in everything else, but does not want to be caught doing it. A really good man does not seek attention; all he wants is that somebody else should feel good. And if his own contribution to the situation is not noticed, he is perfectly content. You probably know such people. They are not necessarily brilliant, learned or clever, not outstanding in any way. Yet they seem to bring out the best in us. They make us taste good. They are the salt of the earth.

The next thing I want to say about salt is that it is tangy, bracing and astringent, not cloying or debilitating as sweetness tends to be. Sweetness is a very attractive quality, and Jesus might have said to His disciples, “Ye are the sugar of the earth.” But in fact He didn’t; He said salt. It was characteristic of the Victorian era (at any rate in England) to think of the Christian religion as sweet and sentimental – a velvet cushion to soften for us the shocks and blows of worldly life. One thinks of the syrupy hymns and anthems produced during that period, the pretty-pretty religious pictures of clean little Palestinian children with flowers in their hair. The emphasis was on the first part of our Lord’s words, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” – overlooking the second part, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me.” The yoke was a symbol of bondage, slavery. He also said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” Be prepared, if necessary, for the gas chamber or the electric chair. Submit to death by torture even. No mention of a velvet cushion! Sweetness there will be in the life of religion (and thank God for that!). But the challenge is that we should be salt, not sugar.

Have you noticed the difference in smell between a fresh-water lake and the salt sea? The lake is enervating, the sea bracing. Often on a lake shore there is a whiff of rotting fish or vegetation; never by the seaside, for a saline solution is a mild disinfectant and preservative. The sea is not sterile – far from it! It is teeming with plankton and fish, and a far greater variety of strange creatures than we have on the land. But there is never any sense of decay. You cannot, of course, drink sea water. If that is the only water available, you will die of thirst. Salt water doesn’t quench thirst, it makes you more thirsty than ever. And this brings out another quality of salt: it is thirst-provoking. That is why it helps us digest our food. Religion and church life do not refresh us or satisfy us in themselves. They make us thirsty for something else… for what? For the living water which springs up into everlasting life. This comes direct from the Lord, and from Him alone. “Blessed are they that thirst.” Blessed is the man or the church that thirsts. Are you thirsty for the living water? If not, you need some salt!

This reminds me of an incident in the eventful life of Elisha. The Sons of the Prophets, a religious fraternity who were living in a kind of retreat house near Jericho, said to him, “The situation of this city is pleasant, but the water is bad and the ground barren.” A stream was there, but it was bitter, and carried death wherever it went. Now, Elisha did a strange thing. He called for a new pot, and put salt in it, and threw it into the stream. You would have thought this would have made it worse, but on the contrary. Bitterness is not the same as salt. Bitterness destroys appetite, salt stimulates it. With salt, the waters were healed, and they have been fresh ever since; the modern tourist can quench his thirst there. The symbolism of this little miracle is clear and interesting. The Sons of the Prophets, who boasted of the splendid situation of their city but admitted that the ground was barren, were just like us Christians with our wonderful teachings and our fine church buildings, if we rest content with our situation but lack the healthy, life-giving thirst for God which salt stimulates in the palate: a thirst which enables us to digest the truths we possess and absorb them into our lives, to transform truth into goodness.

So we see that salt represents, in the abstract, “Truth thirsty for goodness.” As Christians, and especially as Swedenborgians, we have plenty of truth, which is pleasant and satisfactory in its own way, but entirely useless unless it leads to an improvement in the quality of our lives. If it does not do this we remain sterile. “Faith alone” has actually been found to carry death with it. Faith inevitably brings a responsibility; we must live according to the truth we know. The professional theologian is at a disadvantage in this respect. He has immense quantities of truth and loves to accumulate it. Perhaps he has written books on it. He is a wholesale dealer in salt. He has warehouses full of salt, and wants to pass it on to other people. But maybe he never takes a lick of it himself. It never occurs to him, perhaps, that he must take the Lord’s teachings out of his study into his everyday life. He could live and die in a wilderness of salt.

Remember Lot’s wife. Oh yes, she knew all about the wickedness of Sodom. She had special insights which other people lacked, revealed by an angel from heaven. But it didn’t seem to occur to her that she herself was involved, that her own life was in danger; that she must get right out of her evil situation, and never look back. She had plenty of salt, but it did not make her hungry for goodness. So she became a dried-up pillar of_ salt in the desert, a perpetual warning of what happens to those who make the salt of doctrine into a monument, instead of using it as an appetizer.

This leads us to the Lord’s parable about salt which has lost its savor. You and I can probably look back to a time when we were really in love with our religion; it meant everything to us. But now, perhaps, the bloom has worn off. Its cutting edge is getting blunt. We are becoming slack and apathetic. This is a dangerous state to be in. With the ordinary worldly pleasure-seeker who has never had any close contacts with religion, salt can be given him to make him thirsty for a better life, which may lead to repentance and reformation. But the religious apostate has been through it all before. He knows the teachings from A to Z. They are “old hat” to him! Such a case is indeed difficult to deal with. As Jesus said: “Salt is good; but if the salt itself has lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing but to be cast out on to the dunghill.”

This comes as a serious challenge to you, if you have once accepted the responsibility of being the salt of the earth. You must be continually on your guard, lest your savor wear off. You must be careful never to grow careless or apathetic. Remember, on you depends the salting of the world in which you move. It rests with you, as a Christian, to demonstrate in your life how a true son or daughter of God should live. Nobody expects you to be a saint; we are all very ordinary people. But a few ordinary people can make a tremendous difference to their environment, if they live in simplicity and sincerity according to the Christian doctrine. A little leaven can leaven three measures of meal. A small pinch of salt can transform a large saucepan of stew. A few good people can transform a family, a community, a town, a nation – so powerful and far-reaching is the force of example. Your kindliness and gentleness, your unselfishness, your intimacy with the Lord, your reverence for holy things, your honesty, integrity and purity, on these may depend the salvation of thousands of people. Not many will be aware of your influence, but it will be there. And some there may be who will say, when at length you leave this earth-life for the Great Beyond: “The world tastes better because he or she has passed this way.”

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