Salt, Light, a City on a Hill

The readings for Sunday, February 5, 2017, Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A, are
Isaiah 58:7-10; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; and Matthew 5:13-16.

The Sermon on the Mountain was introduced in last Sunday’s Gospel reading by a kind of preamble enumerating the beatitudes attributed to Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. Luke also enumerates beatitudes attributed to Jesus, but only four. Then rather strangely appends to the beatitudes four curses also attributed to Jesus. Immediately after Matthew’s version of the beatitudes, he describes disciples of Jesus (Christians) in three metaphors: salt, light, a city on a hill. These three metaphors are the content of this Sunday’s Gospel reading. Matthew begins, “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt loses its saltiness, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

Why is salt in all its saltiness a valid way to describe a Christian or Christian life? We cannot live without salt. Salt runs throughout our history, runs through our language, and runs through our blood vessels. We use salt to make food taste better. We preserve food with salt. We melt ice with salt. All three could be understood in a spiritual sense. The human need for salt shaped history. Civilization grew around salt deposits in Africa, China, India, the Middle East. The quest for salt pushed ships into the sea. It pushed caravans into deserts. Marco Polo (13th century) reported that Tibetans used salt cakes stamped with the seal of Kublai Kahn as currency. Roman historian Tacitus (about 110 A.D.) tells of German tribes waging war over salt deposits.  In his military campaigns, Julius Caesar always took  “salinators” with the army to make salt for his troops.

In our own country, during the Civil War, northern generals targeted the South’s salt production facilities at Saltville, Virginia. The reason: salt was used to maintain the health of troops, preserve food and tan leather.  President Jefferson Davis of the Confederacy offered immunity from military service for any man who would set up kettles along the seacoast and boil down seawater for salt. So desperate were people of the South for salt that they dug up their smokehouse floors, boiled and strained the dirt, to recover salt that had dropped from the brine oozing out of the heavily salted meat during the process of preserving the meat and smoking it.  On Avery Island in SW Louisiana, there is an ancient brine (salt) spring. During the Civil War workers deepened the spring and discovered a solid white mountain of salt sixteen feet below the surface. Their joy as this discovery was very brief. The northern army captured and flooded the mine.

Mahatma Gandhi resisted British rule of India by leading a 200 mile march to the sea to protest the salt tax imposed by the British and to produce salt from seawater. New babies at one time were rubbed down with salt to ensure a long life. Arabs made peace with the saying, “There is salt between us.” Salt was exchanged as a symbol of peace between parties to a treaty. At one time German grooms put bread into one pocket, salt into the other pocket to express the hope of an enduring marriage. The bride put salt in her shoes. Bathing in salt springs is an ancient health measure used to this day. Think French Lick, Ind. Spilling salt was considered bad luck — as we see in Da Vinci’s Last Supper. The salt container is spilled in front of Judas. Let’s not forget Mrs. Lot, who turned into a pillar of salt. English words from the Latin for salt: salvation, salute, salary, salutary. As salt is to natural life, so a Christian is to the life of the Spirit in the world.
Matthew continues, “You are the light of the world. People do not light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in a house. So let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” What was God’s first creation? “Let there be light.” True story: a woman lived next door to a blind couple. She wrote their checks, etc. This couple did not need the lights turned on in the house. When their helpful neighbor came into this dark house the first time, she said, “Where is the light? I can’t see.” Said the blind woman, “You poor sighted people. You are so helpless!” As light is necessary for most of us to function normally in everyday life, so Christian life is necessary for the world to function normally as God intended.

The third metaphor: “A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” Matthew does not expand on this saying of Jesus, but the meaning is obvious. Christian life in the secular world should stand out as does a city on a hill.