Ye are the salt of the earth, but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men. (Matthew 5:13)
First, a confession: When I was an evangelical, I wrote a tract about the “salt of the earth.” I aimed it at less evangelical churches, and held that if a church did not fulfill the Great Commission it had lost its salt and was thus useless to God, destined to be cast under foot of men. Now I understand how judgmental I was. There is a lot more to this proverbial saltiness than a few lines from the Gospels that are usually taken way out of context by modernist bible scholars.
As an Orthodox Christian, I understand that this verse tells us about the behavior of the Christian, and not necessarily his fealty to a “protofundiecharismangelistic” interpretation of the Great Commission.
Context, as the Holy Church Fathers tell us, is crucial for one’s understanding of these passages. Matthew 5:13 happens upon the heels of the Beatitudes (“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” etc), thus the Beatitudes serve as a backdrop for the salt and light analogies coming up in 5:13-14. The Beatitudes establish the qualities that God wants us to adapt in order to be proven salty. “For first, the meek, and yielding, and merciful, and righteous, shuts not up his good deeds unto himself only, but also provides that these good fountains should run over for the benefit of others,” wrote St. John Chrysostom. “And he again who is pure in heart, and a peacemaker, and is persecuted for the truth’s sake; he again orders his way of life for the common good.”
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was raising the bar in terms of the Virtues. They, His disciples, were going to be the foundation of the Church, visible to a sick and rotten world, and thus were charged with “salting” it. Salt is not sweet but is stinging, bitter, and necessary in small quantities for our survival. Think of it in a Christian context and one can see how much more valuable it is to be salty than sweet. The disciples of Christ would have to sprinkle their salt on the wounds of sin, often painfully, to cauterize such corruption. “It is not for you then to flatter and deal smoothly with men, but, on the contrary, to be rough and biting as salt is. When for thus offending men by reproving them ye are reviled, rejoice; for this is the proper effect of salt to be harsh and grating to the depraved palate. Thus the evil-speaking of others will bring you no inconvenience, but will rather be a testimony of your firmness,” St. John Chrysostom wrote.
The Explanation of the Blessed Theophylact adds that Christ’s disciples must transfer their virtue to others around them just as salt seasons the food on which it is sprinkled. “The disciple of Christ ought to be like salt, that is, first he ought to be good himself and have no part in wickedness, and then he ought to transmit that goodness to others,” he writes. We are charged to be an influence of goodness in the world. “The Church is the salt that salts the whole world, preserving it from putridity,” said St. Ephraim of Syria.
This passage serves as a warning to the world: Christ and His disciples came to bring a spiritual astringent to a world oozing with evil. “This is the very use of salt, to sting the corrupt, and make them smart,” writes St. John Chrysostom.
Looking back, I was not so far off base when I wrote my “Salt of the Earth” tract back then. Because in fact this statement by Christ serves as a warning to the Church too. The Church must remain salty: When we cease doing that, it’s under foot we go! But so far, so good – the Holy Orthodox Church remains salty, still, after 1,976 years.