Great Texts of the Bible by James Hastings - Matthew 5:13 - 5:13

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Great Texts of the Bible by James Hastings - Matthew 5:13 - 5:13

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The Salt of the Earth

Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men.—Mat_5:13.

The exact position of these words in the Sermon on the Mount must be carefully remembered. They follow immediately after the Beatitudes—those sayings in which Christ had described the various qualities of character essential to the citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven, that is, for one who would obey the rule which He had come on earth to establish and extend. A citizen of that Kingdom, Christ had just taught His hearers, must be humble-minded: he must grieve over the sin and the various evils which exist in the world; he must be gentle; he must desire righteousness above all things; he must be merciful; he must be pure-minded in the fullest sense of the words; he must do all in his power to promote peace; and he must be prepared to suffer in order that righteousness may be promoted and extended. A character which fulfils these conditions, that is, a character of which these virtues are the factors, is the character desired by Christ, and such a character is His own.

Immediately after this description has been given, as soon as ever this ideal has been set us as the standard, Christ addresses the words of the text to those who were following Him and learning from Him. To them He looked to cultivate this character. And for a moment He thinks of them, not as they actually were, but as He would have them be. For a moment He treats them as if His ideal for them were already realized in them; He does not say ye shall be, but ye are the salt of the earth. The spirit of all the united qualities commended in the Beatitudes is the salt of the life of the world. All of them—meekness and humility and purity and the rest—run up into two: the spirit of love and the spirit of righteousness. These, then, embodied in human life, are the salt of the earth, the salt of Churches and nations, of all forms of human activity, of thought, of imagination, of business, of the daily life of men. These keep humanity fresh and living, preserve it from corruption, and add to it the savour which secures to men their true and enduring enjoyment of life. But chiefly, in Christ’s present idea, they were the freshening, purifying, preserving element in His Kingdom.


The Salt and its Savour

“Ye are the salt of the earth.”

1. Salt is one of those superfluities which the great French wit defined as “things that are very necessary.” From the very beginning of human history men have set a high value upon it and sought for it in caves and by the seashore. The nation that had a good supply of it was counted rich. A bag of salt, among the barbarous tribes, was worth more than a man. The Jews prized it especially because they lived in a warm climate where food was difficult to keep, and because their religion laid particular emphasis on cleanliness, and because salt was largely used in their sacrifices.

Both in Hebrew and in Roman bywords, salt is praised as a necessity of human life. Homer calls it “divine,” and Plato speaks of it as a “substance dear to the gods.” It is an indispensable element in the food both of men and of animals. It is so cheap and plentiful with us that we can hardly realize that there are places where there is what is known as salt starvation, which is in its way even more painful than hunger or thirst. A missionary tells us that in Africa he has known natives who have travelled fifty or sixty miles in search of salt. Their hot African blood, lacking the purifying and health-giving salt, has broken out in painful ulcers which drain the life and energy; and when the mission-house has been reached they have begged in piteous tones, not for money or bread, but for salt.1 [Note: J. G. Mantle, God’s To-Morrow, 22.]

Chloride of sodium (common salt) is fortunately one of the most widely distributed, as well as one of the most useful and absolutely necessary, of nature’s gifts; and it is a matter of much comfort to know that this mineral exists in such enormous quantities that it can never be exhausted. “Had not,” says Dr. Buckland, “the beneficent providence of the Creator laid up these stores of salt within the bowels of the earth, the distance of inland countries from the sea would have rendered this article of prime and daily necessity unattainable to a large proportion of mankind; but under the existing dispensation, the presence of mineral salt, in strata which are dispersed generally over the interior of our continents and larger islands, is a source of health and daily enjoyment to the inhabitants of almost every region.” Even supposing that the whole of the mines, brine pits, and springs become exhausted, we can fall back on the sea, whose supply is as boundless as its restless self; and there is as little fear of its exhaustion as there is of the failure of the sun’s heat.1 [Note: W. Coles-Finch, Water: its Origin and Use, 167.]

2. From one point of view it was an immense compliment for the disciples to be spoken of as salt. Their Master showed great confidence in them. He set a high value upon them. The historian Livy could find nothing better to express his admiration for the people of ancient Greece than this very phrase. He called them sal gentium, “the salt of the nations.” But our Lord was not simply paying compliments. He was giving a clear and powerful call to duty. His thought was not that His disciples should congratulate themselves on being better than any other men. He wished them to ask themselves whether they actually had in them the purpose and the power to make other men better. Did they intend to exercise a purifying, seasoning, saving influence in the world? Salt exists solely to purify, not itself, but that which needs its services. The usefulness of the Church as a separated society lies wholly in the very world from which it has been so carefully separated. It exists to redeem that world from itself. Out of love for that world it is sent by the same impulse of the Father as sent to it His only-begotten Son; and the damning error of the Pharisee is that he arrests this Divine intention in mid career, arrests it at the point where it has reached him, arrests it for his own honour and his own benefit, refusing to let it pass through him to its work on others.

(1) Salt is most largely used as an antiseptic, for allaying corruption, and for stopping the effects of climate upon animal matter; it is a preservative of sweetness and purity in that with which it is associated. So the presence of Christ’s Church in the world, of a Christian man or woman in the smaller world of his or her own circle in society, is to be preservative: to allay corruption, to maintain life, to ward off decay and death, to uphold a standard of right, without which the world would be a far worse place than it is.

“Ye”—Christians, ye that are lowly, serious, and meek; ye that hunger after righteousness, that love God and man, that do good to all, and therefore suffer evil—“ye are the salt of the earth.” It is your very nature to season whatever is round about you. It is the nature of the Divine savour which is in you to spread to whatsoever you touch; to diffuse itself, on every side, to all those among whom you are. This is the great reason why the providence of God has so mingled you together with other men, that whatever grace you have received of God may through you be communicated to others; that every holy temper and word and work of yours may have an influence on them also. By this means a check will, in some measure, be given to the corruption which is in the world; and a small part, at least, saved from the general infection, and rendered holy and pure before God.1 [Note: John Wesley.]

(2) To put our Lord’s comparison in its full relief, however, we must add the sacrificial use of salt in Hebrew worship as well as in the rites of heathen antiquity. No offering of cakes or vegetable produce was laid on Jehovah’s altar saltless; perhaps this seasoning was added even to animal sacrifices; certainly it entered into the composition of the sacred incense. With all this in their minds, Jesus’ audience could understand Him to mean no less than this, that His disciples were to act on society (Jewish society, of course, in the first place) as a moral preservative, keeping it from total decay, and fitting it to be an oblation, not distasteful, but acceptable, to Jehovah. The thought was far from a new one to the Hebrew mind. Remembering how the world before the flood perished because “all flesh had corrupted his way,” except one salt particle too minute to preserve the mass; how ten men like Lot would have saved the cities of the lower Jordan; how it marked the extreme ripeness to destruction of the Israel of Ezekiel’s day, that even these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, had they been in it, could have delivered “neither son nor daughter”; no Jew could miss the point of our Lord’s words to His Twelve around Him, “Ye are the salt of the land.” When He spoke, the corruption of His nation was extreme, as His own sermons show us; and effete Judaism was fast ripening for its fall.

(3) Salt gives relish to what would otherwise be tasteless or unpleasant; and Christ’s people are, if we may so speak, the relishing element in the world, which prevents it from being loathsome altogether to the Lord. So Lot was in the cities of the plain the one savour which made them even so long endurable. There was not much salt in Lot; but there was a little, there was a righteous soul that at least vexed itself because of the unrighteousness around it, if it did not do very much to arrest that unrighteousness. And because of Lot, God almost spared the place, would have spared it had there been only a few more like him, or had he been just a little truer than he was. Even so Christians are to be as salt to the earth, which, without them, would be in a manner loathsome, being so possessed with mean and base and ignoble souls.

A king asked his three daughters how much they loved him. Two of them replied that they loved him better than all the gold and silver in the world. The youngest one said she loved him better than salt. The king was not pleased with her answer, as he thought salt was not very palatable. But the cook, overhearing the remark, put no salt in anything for breakfast next morning, and the meal was so insipid that the king could not enjoy it. He then saw the force of his daughter’s remark. She loved him so well that nothing was good without him.1 [Note: A. C. Dixon, Through Night to Morning, 197.]

(4) Salt does its work silently, inconspicuously, gradually. “Ye are the light of the world,” says Christ in the next verse. Light is far-reaching and brilliant, flashing that it may be seen. That is one side of Christian work, the side that most of us like best, the conspicuous kind of it. But there is a very much humbler, and a very much more useful, kind of work that we have all to do. We shall never be the “light of the world,” except on condition of being “the salt of the earth.” We have to play the humble, inconspicuous, silent part of checking corruption by a pure example before we can aspire to play the other part of raying out light into the darkness, and so drawing men to Christ Himself.

I was once travelling in an Oriental country, where life was squalid, women despised, and houses built of mud; and of a sudden, I came upon a village where all seemed changed. The houses had gardens before them and curtains in their windows; the children did not beg of the passer-by, but called out a friendly greeting. What had happened? I was fifty miles from a Christian mission-station, and this mission had been there for precisely fifty years. Slowly and patiently the influence had radiated at the rate of a mile a year, so that one could now for a space of fifty miles across that barren land perceive the salt of the Christian spirit, and could see the light of the Christian life shining as from a lighthouse fifty miles away. That was the work to which Jesus summoned the world,—not an ostentatious or revolutionary or dramatic work, but the work of the salt and of the light. The saying of Jesus is not for the self-satisfied or conspicuous, but for the discouraged and obscure. A man says to himself: “I cannot be a leader, a hero, or a scholar, but I can at least do the work of the salt and keep the life that is near to me from spoiling; I can at least do the work of the light so that the way of life shall not be wholly dark.” Then, as he gives himself to this self-effacing service, he hears the great word: “He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it,” and answers gladly: “So then death worketh in us, but life in you.”1 [Note: F. G. Peabody, Mornings in the College Chapel, ii. 53.]


The Salt without the Savour.

“If the salt have lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted?”

1. Salt may lose its seasoning power. In Christ’s era salt frequently reached the consumer in a very imperfect state, being largely mixed with earth. The salt which has lost its savour is simply the earthy residuum of such impure salt after the sodium chloride has been washed out. Blocks of salt were quarried on the shores of the Dead Sea and brought to Jerusalem, and a store of this rock-salt was kept by the Levites in the Temple to be used in the sacrifices. It was very impure—usually containing a large mixture of sand—and in moist weather the saline ingredient deliquesced and, trickling away, left the porous lump in its original shape, but all its substance, all its “savour” gone. For food it was no longer fit seasoning. Cast on the altar it would no longer decrepitate and sparkle, and in flowers of flaming violet adorn and consume the offering. Even the farmer did not care to get it. The gritty, gravelly mass was good for nothing—only fit to be pounded and sprinkled on the slippery pavement, and trodden under the feet of men.

I have often seen just such salt, and the identical disposition of it that our Lord has mentioned. A merchant of Sidon having farmed of the Government the revenue from the importation of salt, brought over an immense quantity from the marshes of Cyprus—enough, in fact, to supply the whole province for at least twenty years. This he had transferred to the mountains, to cheat the Government out of some small percentage. Sixty-five houses in Jûne—Lady Stanhope’s village—were rented and filled with salt. These houses have merely earthen floors, and the salt next the ground in a few years entirely spoiled. I saw large quantities of it literally thrown into the street, to be trodden under foot of men and beasts. It was “good for nothing.” Similar magazines are common in Palestine, and have been from remote ages; and the sweeping out of the spoiled salt and casting it into the street are actions familiar to all men. Maundrell, who visited the lake at Jebbûl, tells us that he found salt there which had entirely “lost its savour,” and the same abounds among the debris at Usdum, and in other localities of rock-salt at the south end of the Dead Sea. Indeed, it is a well-known fact that the salt of this country, when in contact with the ground, or exposed to rain and sun, does become insipid, and useless. From the manner in which it is gathered, much earth and other impurities are necessarily collected with it. Not a little of it is so impure that it cannot be used at all; and such salt soon effloresces and turns to dust—not to fruitful soil, however. It is not only good for nothing itself, but it actually destroys all fertility wherever it is thrown; and this is the reason why it is cast into the street. There is a sort of verbal verisimilitude in the manner in which our Lord alludes to the act—“it is cast out” and “trodden under foot”; so troublesome is this corrupted salt, that it is carefully swept up, carried forth, and thrown into the street. There is no place about the house, yard, or garden where it can be tolerated. No man will allow it to be thrown on to his field, and the only place for it is the street; and there it is cast, to be trodden under foot of men.1 [Note: W. M. Thomson, The Land and the Book, chap. xxvi.]

2. What is a saltless Christian? A saltless Christian is one who has gone back to the earthly, the worldly, the carnal. The heavenly element is no longer in the ascendant; the salt has lost its savour.

(1) One sign of deterioration is to be found in a lowered and attenuated ideal. Christ has little by little become almost a personal stranger. We do not seek His company, watch His eye, listen for His voice. The thought of Him does not send a thrill of joy into the heart. We have not renounced Him or consciously taken another Lord in His place. But we have lagged so far behind in the journey that He is quite out of our sight and reach. We can no more honestly say, as once we could say with a kind of rapture, “He is chief among ten thousand, and altogether lovely.” It is the inevitable result from this changed relationship to Christ that the cross has dropped from our back (we did not feel it drop, nor do we miss it now that it is gone); there is nothing in our lives, or activities, or general profession, that is irksome or troublesome, compelling sacrifice, and earning joy. The world is apparently neither worse nor better for us. Really it is worse. The candlestick is still in its place, the candle is still feebly burning, but in a moment it may go out, and then where shall we be?

If you take a red-hot ball out of a furnace and lay it down upon a frosty moor, two processes will go on—the ball will lose heat and the surrounding atmosphere will gain it. There are two ways by which you equalize the temperature of a hotter and a colder body; the one is by the hot one getting cold, and the other is by the cold one getting hot. If you are not heating the world, the world is freezing you. Every man influences all men round him, and receives influences from them; and if there be not more exports than imports, if there be not more influences and mightier influences raying out from him than are coming into him, he is a poor creature, and at the mercy of circumstances. “Men must either be hammers or anvil”;—must either give blows or receive them. I am afraid that a great many of us who call ourselves Christians get a great deal more harm from the world than we ever dream of doing good to it. Remember this, you are “the salt of the earth,” and if you do not salt the world, the world will rot you.1 [Note: A. Maclaren.]

(2) Another sign of deterioration is a growing indifference to all great enterprise for Christ. Few things are more exhilarating, more invigorating, more uplifting, more solemnizing, than a mighty gathering of Christian people, met, let us say, for a great missionary anniversary, to hear the glad tidings of the progress of the Redeemer’s kingdom, and to return to their homes, stirred, joyful, thankful. The man whose heart is cold to all this, sceptical about it, indifferent to it, and who yet looks back on days when every word spoken, every blow struck, every triumph won for Jesus, was a joy which few things else equalled, has good reason for asking himself what has happened to him to make the growth of the Kingdom of Christ so small and dull and unattractive and commonplace a thing. The change is assuredly not in the purpose of Jesus, or in the value of the soul, or in the duty of the Church, which is His Body.

If, as can be reasonably argued, the historian may trace an increasing deterioration in the moral worth of Alexander Borgia from the period when the influence of Cesare at the Vatican replaced that of Juan, the fact has its obvious explanation. Rodrigo Borgia was a man of extraordinary vitality, with unusual reserves of power for his years. His energies had found their chief outlet in keen interest in the functions of his office as he understood them. His sensual indulgences, however disreputable, were never the first preoccupation of his nature; they were rather the surplusage of a virile temperament to which such interests as art, letters, or building made no serious appeal. In any position but that of the Vicar of Christ his excesses would have passed unremarked. If they weakened, as they undoubtedly did, his spiritual authority, they had hitherto scarcely detracted from the respect due to his political capacity. But in proportion as he surrendered his initiative in affairs and shared the control of policy, of finance, and of ecclesiastical administration with Cesare, the less worthy elements of his nature asserted themselves more forcibly. It was inevitable that in such a man abdication of responsibility should have this result, till in the end Alexander became a thoroughly evil man; evil, in that under guise of natural affection, in reality through cowardice, he allowed his authority, both spiritual and political, to be shamelessly exploited. Thus knowingly and without resistance Rodrigo Borgia steadily yielded to the worst impulses of his nature.1 [Note: W. H. Woodward, Cesare Borgia, 136.]

3. When the salt has lost its savour it is good for nothing. There are some things, the chemist tells us, which, when they have lost their own peculiar form and utility, are still of some good, for they can be put to other and baser uses. But to what use can a dead Church be put? You may try to galvanize it into newness of life by artificial means, but, after all, it is nothing more than a corpse. All that can be truly said of such an attempt is that it was an interesting experiment. A mere profession of religion is either an embarrassment or, what is worse, a fatal delusion. This old world of ours has undergone many material changes during its existence, yet it has grown more and more beautiful, in spite of them, as the forces of evolution have unfolded themselves. But there is one change it could hardly survive as the habitation of man, and that is the lost consciousness of the presence and power of God with the people, or the loss of the sweetness and beauty of the Redeemer of men as revealed in the lives of those faithful souls who sincerely love Him. For the Church which has lost its savour there will come a day when men, overwhelmed by their disappointment, and maddened by their sense of its lost savour, will tear it to pieces, just as the enraged mob in Paris is said to have torn the fillet from Reason’s brow and trampled it under their feet.

If the salt should lose its savour, if the regenerative force should die out of the Church—if there were a Church into which the spirit of the world had passed, a Church which had become assimilated by the world, a Church which had somehow learnt to speak the world’s language and to justify the world’s morality, and to echo the world’s phrases, a Church which are and drank at the world’s table without the world becoming aware of any protest, or any discomfort, or any fear, a Church which, instead of awakening consciences, sent them to sleep, instead of exposing the world’s plagues flattered them into excusing or forgetting them: in the name of God what use, or place, has such a Church on the face of the earth? Such a Church has falsified the first law of its existence. It has killed out the very conscience which it was created to sustain. It has destroyed the very power of remedy from sin which it alone held in charge. It has poisoned the wells of human hope. “If the very salt have lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men.”

The really amazing thing is that such immense numbers of people have accepted Christianity in the world, and profess themselves Christians without the slightest doubt of their sincerity, who never regard the Christian principles at all. The chief aim, it would seem, of the Church has been not to preserve the original revelation, but to accommodate it to human instincts and desires. It seems to me to resemble the very quaint and simple old Breton legend, which relates how the Saviour sent the Apostles out to sell stale fish as fresh; and when they returned unsuccessful, He was angry with them, and said, “How shall I make you into fishers of men, if you cannot even persuade simple people to buy stale fish for fresh?” That is a very trenchant little allegory of ecclesiastical methods! And perhaps it is even so that it has come to pass that Christianity is in a sense a failure, or rather an unfulfilled hope, because it has made terms with the world, has become pompous and respectable and mundane and influential and combative, and has deliberately exalted civic duty above love.1 [Note: A. C. Benson, Joyous Gard, 197.]

Glanced over some lectures of Mr. Gore’s on “The Mission of the Church.” He tells a story of St. Thomas Aquinas which is new to me. The Pope said to him, as the bags full of the money of the faithful, who had crowded to the Jubilee, were carried past: “Peter could not say now, ‘Silver and gold have I none.’ ” “No,” was the reply, “neither could he say, ‘Arise, and walk!’ ”2 [Note: Sir M. E. Grant Duff, Notes from a Diary, 1892–1895, i. 138.]

The Salt of the Earth


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Christian World Pulpit, xl. 360 (A. Melville); lviii. 183 (H. S. Holland); lxx. 49 (A. Clayton); lxxvi. 75 (W. Glover); lxxxii. 282 (N. Marshall).