I’ve been thinking - am I the salt of the earth? Or am I salting the earth?
In Matthew, the author records that Jesus calls us to be the salt of the earth. The flavour and depth of our communities. The salt of the earth is such an evocative, grounding call, isn’t it?
And yet, salt can be so destructive. Salinity hinders plant growth, causes corrosion, and erodes masonry. From ancient times into the 19th century, there are stories of conquered lands being sowed with salt to make them unusable for agriculture and building, and to force their people out. Whether a historical fact, or symbolic curse, the practice of salting the earth speaks to a power to hinder, stunt and corrode..
I can imagine that salt was essential in the first and consequent Passover meals. It was a communal meal, eaten by Israel together. Can you imagine the smell that evening – roast lamb in every house! How comforting and irresistible – the children would have run home. And while the meal was inviting and sustaining, Israel was instructed to gird their loins – to wear a cinch around their waists, so they could tuck up their robes ready for action. They were to be sure to gather together, and mark the door to protect everyone from the coming plague. It was the action of a cohesive community that kept everyone together and safe.
Today, not everyone is safe and included in our community. In the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus tells us that those outside our community are loved, that their return to the flock should be celebrated and a cause for rejoicing. Immediately prior to telling this story, Jesus warns against throwing obstacles before his little ones:
If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling-blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling-block comes.
Here, it is likely that Jesus is talking not only about children, but also about the vulnerable and marginalised. There is a real risk of keeping people out of our cosy community. Christianity can be made an impossible task for some. Unattainable and unreasonable standards set by a judging and disapproving community creates a sense of always failing God. We can salt the earth with our criticisms and fear, stunting the growth of our community, and preventing God from showing his love through us. Our duty is quite the opposite – we need to be the salt of the earth, to build a perfectly seasoned community, that is full of flavour and goodness, and is accessible, irresistible, nutritious, and comforting to those on the fringes.
This not not to say we don’t call out bad behaviour. There are times when a person or group’s behaviour puts others in harm’s way, when their sin is against the community. This is particularly so when the vulnerable, God’s little ones, are at risk. That’s the time gird our loins, to tuck up our robes and take action. And even then, the goal is cohesion. Jesus instructs a community based approached to discipline, that seeks resolution and restitution over and over. Go to the person in private. If they won’t listen, go with someone else. If they still won’t listen, get help from someone with seniority. Go to the whole church if you have to. The seriousness is made clear – we are the body of Christ, where two or three gathers, there is Jesus. To exclude someone means to deprive them of God’s community, to deprive them from the relationships that we need to experience Jesus; our actions unloose or bind in heaven. It’s a serious course of action, and something that might be necessary if God’s little ones were at risk.
We must be measured and careful in our criticisms because we can do all sorts of harm – we can set the bar so high and so off kilter that we make it impossible for people to experience God in our community. On the flip side, sometimes the harm is in standing silently by and not objecting. And this speaks to our duties outside the church as well. Paul tells the Romans to be good, obedient citizens. The early Roman church was a minority community that was oppressed, and within a decade, was being brutally massacred by Nero. Being good citizens was good advice to keep the early church as safe and as cohesive as possible. How does that relate to the modern western democracy? In a democracy, we are a part of the government. We elect “representatives” who govern according to their community’s values, our values. Yes, we need to be good citizens, to support our leadership, and to do fulfil our responsibilities to an orderly and safe society. But when the vulnerable and marginalised are not safe, within or outside the church, we must be ready to act, to be a haven, to keep them safe, and celebrate their inclusion. We can’t justify inaction by Paul’s call to be decent citizens, not in a western democracy when we are also in governance.
In all our actions and decisions, we need to assess whether we are the salt of the earth. Are we the flavour in a diverse community, a simmering, fragrant celebration that is irresistible to those passing us by? Are we blessing and feeding God’s loved ones, his little ones, our church, and the vulnerable within and without? Or are we salting the earth – leaving it impossible for God’s marginalised and vulnerable to grow, prosper, and settle? Are we using our salt to erode, corrode, stunt, and decay or are we the flavour, the seasoning, the depth, the salt of the earth.
by Ann Edwards
Jo Inkpin, Penny Jones, Jeni Nix, Peter Jeffery, Ann Edwards, Elizabeth McConnell