Losing our Saltiness

Salt was way more important in the time of Jesus than it is today.  Thanks to refrigeration, we are not dependent on salt to preserve meat in order to not die from food-borne illnesses.  More so, the health community is quite aware that too much salt is detrimental to our health.  As one with high blood pressure, I can assure you, I’ve heard all about salts impacts.  Still, salt is ubiquitous on dining room tables in homes, restaurants, and cafeterias.  Salt is so commonly used that some countries mandated that iodine be added to it to prevent intellectual and developmental disabilities.  Between 1990 and 2006, thanks to a concerted effort on behalf of the World Summit for Children, iodized salt usage increased from 25% to 66% of households, and the worlds IQ rose because of it.  The course has begun to reverse, however, as pink Himalayan salt has become the rage.  While some pink salt may contain trace amounts of iodine naturally, the general consensus seems to be that if you want to avoid an iodine deficiency, you should look for white salt.

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Long, probably unnecessary introduction aside, what’s really fascinating to me in the move toward pink salt is that it has been shown to have a statistically significant lower level of saltiness.  That is to say, if you are using pink salt to season a dish, you’ll need to use more of it to achieve the same flavor profile.  You with me?

When Jesus makes the somewhat absurd claim that salt can lose its taste, my mind was immediately taken to pink salt.  It is pretty.  It looks great in instagram photos of you dinner table.  It is suggested that it has all kinds of health benefits, but it lacks two very important things – depth of flavor and added iodine.  The lack of flavor is inherent in the makeup of pink salt.  The lack of iodine is a result of outside forces.  As I think about the life of faith and how disciples of Jesus might lose their saltiness, I would venture to stretch this metaphor a bit further.  Disciples who have lost their taste seem to be missing both internal and external components as well.  To lose our fundamental identity as the salt of the world often comes from a lack of community.  Iodine infusion for salty Christians comes by way of regular participation in worship, communal Bible study, and corporate acts of compassion.  When we remove ourselves from a community of faith, we lose part of what it means to be the salt of the earth.

Furthermore, when these external forces are removed, it becomes easier and easier to craft God in our own image.  Less and less focused on what it means to be a Christian for the world, we get so focused on what it means to be a Christian for ourselves that we begin to lose our connection with God through the indwelling of the Spirit.  Not having any kinds of checks and balances on our faith, we tend to focus on the wrong things, and, it seems fair to say, run the risk of coming nothing more than superficial Christians.  It might look good on the outside through an elaborate series of filters, but the true purpose of our saltiness is lost.

Like I said, salt isn’t as important today as it was in Jesus’ time, so you’ll have to forgive the shoehorning of this metaphor for nearly 600 words, but I do think there is something there for us to consider.  What may have seemed absurd 20 years ago – that salt could lose its most basic value – has come to fruition in the explosion of pink salt.  It might seems absurd that disciples of Jesus could lose their saltiness, but I don’t think so.  I think it is a real risk for all of us who claim to follow Jesus.  Staying connected to community and listening for the Holy Spirit in context is important to the ongoing development of the life of faith.

What goes in

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In the realm of “there’s nothing new under the sun,” middle-class America has become obsessed with what they put in the body of late.  There was time when it was just about whether or not one could eat eggs and maintain basic health,

but now a days, there are open, ongoing, and often long-winded conversations about the merits of gluten, meat, lactose, soy, paleo, and Whole30 related dietary needs, just to name a few.  We are, of course, not the first generation of human beings to worry about such things, though ours probably stems more from luxury than it did in bygone eras.

One such time when the conversation about what one ate raged loudly was in and around the time of Jesus and the rise of the Pharisaical sect of Jewish priests.  Their main theological goal was to return Judaism to ritual purity as described in the Torah.  As such, they placed a high value on the purity code that included avoiding certain foods, cooked in certain way, in certain pots, and, given their Roman occupied context, offered as sacrifice to certain gods.  While today they are an easy punching bag, especially in interpreting Matthew’s Gospel, the Pharisees had good intentions at heart.  In their promised land, occupied by a foreign, pagan, empire, the only way that the Jews could really maintain their identity was to live by the strict code that God had given them through the 10 Commandments and the Levitical law.

Whether it is to the privileged white dude ordering his non-fat, half-caf, organic, soy, three-pump, sugar free, locally-sourced vanilla, latte or the Pharisee who might be overly concerned with whether or not one’s mixing spoon was used in two different pots, Jesus offers a counter-point in Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  Not as a matter of health or even as a point in the conversation about the ethics of food sourcing, but rather as part of the ongoing human question about what does or does not make someone clean in the eyes of God, Jesus offers this advice, “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”  In modern idiom, it might be, it’s not how fair trade your coffee is, but how you treat your barista.

Jesus is much more concerned with our relationships with other human beings than he is with how fussy we are about the rules.  This isn’t to say that buying coffee from responsible growers isn’t a good thing, but that even there, it is about concentric circles of relationships.  How we treat one another, whether it is face-to-face or three thousand miles apart, is what matters in the Kingdom, and how we treat each other comes forth from the heart rather than the other way ’round.  So, the next time you feel like patting yourself on the back for that organic head of lettuce, stop and give thanks for the growers who have chosen to use earth friendly farming techniques, pray for the laborers who do the hard work of harvesting, the scientists who are making trucks more eco-friendly through the discover of DEF, and the grocer, who, one hopes, has paid a just sum for the product.  And, as always, don’t forget to smile at your cashier, tip your waiter, and thank your barista.  These are the things that come from the heart.