One of the more intriguing sayings of Jesus which is recorded in each of the Synoptic Gospels is his comparison of the disciples of God to the “salt of the earth.” Found in Matthew 5:13; Mark 9:49–50; and Luke 14:34–35, one can read a similarly repeated axiom of the Lord Jesus. Yet, when one considers the contextual surroundings in each instance, a different hue is cast upon this illustrious saying. Regardless, the color is still the gospel.
In the Matthean account, for example, this adage is placed near the very beginning of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. (Matt. 5—7) “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus declares. “But if the salt should lose its taste, how can it be made salty? It’s no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” (Matt. 5:13) With its placement here, as Jesus begins his earthly ministry, one is made to see the stimulating effect of “salt,” both naturally and spiritually. Throughout this discourse and the other Matthean discourses, Jesus is intentional about what constitutes true religion. Where the Pharisees had mistakenly reckoned that righteousness would come about through meritorious law-keeping of their own accord, Christ upset their notions of personal achievement and, instead, declared that righteousness, true religion, would come by a righteousness that “surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees.” (Matt. 5:20)
As such, Christ’s illustration of his disciples as “salt,” here, connotes not only the stimulating influence his followers ought to have but also the stifling impact the Pharisees had had on “true religion” up to this point. “They tie up heavy loads that are hard to carry,” Jesus rebukes, “and put them on people’s shoulders . . . [they] shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.” (Matt. 23:4, 13) Christ’s disciples were to be the opposite: they were to unburden the weary, directing the lost to the kingdom of the true God, in peace and gentleness. They were to be about the weightier matters of the law: “justice, mercy, and faithfulness.” (Matt. 23:23)
Similarly, the Markan record of this saying appears in chapter 9. “For everyone will be salted with fire,” Jesus says. “Salt is good, but if the salt should lose its flavor, how can you season it? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” (Mark 9:49–50) In the context of Mark’s Gospel, this remark occurs just after the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2–12) and just prior to the Triumphal Entry. (Mark 11:1–11) Therefore, it is indicative of a later moment in Jesus’s earthly ministry. And, once again, the scene just prior to Jesus’s “salt” saying provides an incisive look as to his intent by such a remark.
In Mark 9:33–37 is recorded the infamous squabble of the disciples to determine “Who is the greatest?” Though none of the apostles admits verbally to such a debate (Mark 9:34), Jesus knew their hearts and decides to take the opportunity to showcase what his Father’s kingdom would truly look like, all by taking a child in his arms. (Mark 9:36–37) The scandal of this embrace is lost to the modern Western ear. In Jesus’s day, children were not viewed with the same cherubic affection with which they are seen today. Rather, they were considered lesser adults, almost nonpersons. O. M. Bakke asserts that “children were seen as of no more consequence than those of animals.” (16) By Jesus’s equation of his disciples posture with that of children, he was thereby associating himself and all who follow him with those who care for the oppressed, for the weak, for the “least of these.”
Accordingly, Jesus reproves his disciples, stating, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to fall away — it would be better for him if a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9:42) Stifling the faith of children was tantamount to spiritual suicide. Rather, like salt, Jesus’s disciples were to have a stimulating influence on persons of all ages, from all walks of life. They were to even have a similar galvanizing affect among themselves. Such is why Christ counsels them, “Have salt among yourselves.”
Turning to the Lukan account, one is given another instance of Jesus’s reference to salt but on a new occasion. In Luke’s Gospel, the adage comes as Christ turns and schools the crowds on the cost of discipleship. “Now, salt is good,” Jesus says, “but if salt should lose its taste, how will it be made salty? It isn’t fit for the soil or for the manure pile; they throw it out. Let anyone who has ears to hear listen.” (Luke 14:34–35) This comes on the heels of extended teachings and parables that were given “at the house of one of the leading Pharisees.” (Luke 14:1) As Christ discusses and demonstrates true religion, he makes incontrovertible the fact that those who follow him are given the opportunity and privilege to impact their neighbors for the sake of the kingdom.
The use of salt, here, has an enhancing affect. Just as salt is applied to enhance and bring out optimum flavor, so should the followers of God enhance the spiritual life of those with whom they live. The people of God have (or ought to have) a stimulating affect on those around them. Not by tendering the sugary sweetness of morality and spiritual achievement. Rather it is, as Robert Capon notes, by proclaiming the “salt of Jesus’ passion and death” (35) that such a life comes. The brusque saltiness of the costliness of grace is what galvanizes all motives for true religion and discipleship.
O. M. Bakke, When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005).
Robert Capon, The Parables of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996).