Matthew 5:13 (ESV) … “You are the salt of the earth, 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.”
What does Jesus mean by “salt”? I turned to W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison Jr.’s voluminous three-volume commentary on Matthew to see what these scholars had to say about the subject. Using the Bible and other ancient writings as their sources, they listed eleven options for what “salt” could refer to here, including preservation (salt preserves meat), sacrifice (salt was added to Old Testament ritual sacrifices), peace, friendship, and wisdom.
I am grateful for such thorough research, and I enjoy expanding my mind on the subject of salt. However, it seems that Jesus is quite clear about what he means by salt, for when he speaks of “salt” he speaks of tasting it: “but if salt has lost its taste.” Therefore, this refers to the salt that we put on the food that we eat, as it also does elsewhere in Scripture (cf. Job 6:6; Colossians 4:5).
So with that in mind, here’s how I envision Jesus’ teaching. I think of it as a bowl of soup. One time I had lunch with Charleen and Sam, an older couple from my church. Charleen made us some wonderful soup. After I said, “This is very tasty soup,” she said, “Yeah, it has lots of salt!” Now, I know that salt is bad for high blood pressure, etc., but I also know that soup without salt doesn’t taste very good.
So, Christians (bear with my analogy) are like a bowl of salty soup. If we trust in Christ, the world notices a distinct flavor to our lives. But if we stop acting salty (i.e., if we lose our distinctiveness), we become worthless. It’s as if there is no salt in the soup.
I know that salt is a very stable chemical compound. So, strictly speaking, sodium chloride remains sodium chloride. But salt can lose its saltiness if it is “contaminated by mixture with impurities” or if it is oversaturated with other substances. So think of a bowl of soup that at first has just the right amount of ingredients. It has some broth and carrots, meat and potatoes, noodles and garlic, oregano and basil, and salt. What would happen to the taste of the salt if you added too many carrots or potatoes or too much water? Let’s say you had a perfect pint of soup that you dumped into a six-quart stockpot. Then you added four quarts of water. Now, if you proceeded to plunge your wooden kitchen spoon into this batch for a taste, you wouldn’t be able to taste the sodium chloride. The salt in that soup would lose its saltiness.
The point is simple: there should be no diluted disciples! “You are the salt,” Jesus says. This is not an imperative (a command—“be salt”) but an indicative (a statement of fact—“you are salt”). But if you start adding all the ingredients the world loves—a dash of the love of money, a pinch of the fleeing pleasures of sexual immorality, and so on—then you start to water down your witness and taste just like every other bland, unsalted, or under-salted soup. There is to be a distinct taste to Christians. But if we, for example, spend three weeks picking out expensive drapes for our third lake house, five minutes laughing at a dirty joke at the watercooler, or all day Sunday glued to the television set watching our politicians spin and athletes run and jump, don’t think the world doesn’t notice, and don’t think a heap of water isn’t being poured into our once salty soup. “Oh, he says he believes in Jesus, he says Jesus will come to judge us, he says there is a world to come, but he sure doesn’t live like any of that is true.”