Religious Literature

Origin and Meaning of Salt of the Earth



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"Origin and Meaning of Salt of the Earth"
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Salt of the EARTH Please (Matthew 5.13; Luke 14.34-35)

The well-known metaphor "salt of the earth" from the Gospel of Matthew (5.13) seems to a multitude of people as totally straightforward. "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot".

Everyone knows what it means. Commentators on the New Testament have been saying the same thing about it ad infinitum: salt adds "flavor", "preserves", "keeps food from going rancid". This must be the meaning in Matthew 5.13, they say. Of course, when commentators and translators keep saying the same thing over and over again we are inclined to fall in line. But there are a number of problems with this common interpretation of the metaphor. Let me list the most obvious ones, and then reach a conclusion about the most likely meaning given all the salient factors.


1. In Matthew 5 the salt is described as "of the EARTH". The Greek word means "land", "soil", "earth", not "food" and not "table" (as in table salt). Nor does the word imply "world". That would be a different word in Greek.

2. When does salt lose its taste? A student asked that question in class one day. The answer is, never. The taste of sodium chloride remains in all conditions: dissolved in water, frozen, boiled, or mixed with other substances. Taste is not the sense of the Greek word in the context of Matthew 5.13. Potency is. Whatever the substance is apparently it can lose its potency, its effectiveness.

3. The saying of Jesus in Matthew 5 is parallel to the one in Luke 14:34-35. In Luke the substance is clearly meant for the "earth" in which plants grow. Here is how it reads: "Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? 35 It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!" There can be no mistaking the use of the chemical substance in Luke. It certainly does not mean sodium chloride. That chemical damages the soil.

In short, the chemical implied in the Greek word (halas) in both texts is not salt for flavoring foods or preserving meat, but a fertilizing agent for the land. The practice of spreading fertilizing substance, especially that found around the Dead Sea to this day, was practiced in the first century. The Gospel of Luke makes that clear. It has the same effect as spreading manure on the land. It makes vegetation grow.

The implication of Jesus' calling the disciples "fertilizing agents of the land" is that they are to be life-givers. They are not expected to maintain, or preserve, the good in society. Rather, they are to bring a new sense of direction, a new spirit of life and thought to their society where poverty and unrest pertains.

Moreover, my plea here is to propose an interpretation that accounts for the data in the texts. One wonders why Matthew's rendering of the metaphor of Jesus would become the dominant one to quote. Luke's rendering deserves equal recognition and quotation. The salt of the earth is really for the earth, not for the meat or the salt shaker. The substance gives newness of life, not merely enhancement of the good life that already exists.



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