There Israel encamped before the mountain, 3 while Moses went up to God. The Lord called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: 4 ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; 6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ (Exodus 19:3-6)
Seeing the crowds, [Jesus] went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: … 13 “You are the salt of the earth … 14 “You are the light of the world. (Matthew 5:1-2, 13-14)
Matthew frames the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus’ “Sinai moment” – where God’s new people meet the divine presence on a mountain to hear the terms of their new relationship with him.
Notice how Jesus describes the identity of his new people. Instead of the old covenant terms “kingdom of priests” and “holy nation,” Jesus uses the everyday metaphors of salt and light to define the identity of his new people.
I’d bet serious money that “light” appears in church and ministry names at least 10 times more frequently than “salt.” Light is easier to “see,” as it were. It sounds more glorious. Public proclamation, public demonstration of God’s grace and holiness, truth and beauty shining on a hill for all to see … we love the “ministry of light.” Let it shine.
But what is the “ministry of salt?” What is this other calling Jesus has for us?
The Mission: Preserve and Seal
We mainly use salt for flavoring now; but in antiquity, its chief use was to preserve against decay. In the ancient near east, salt was mined like coal and cut into small blocks for household use. The blocks contained a mixture of actual salt (halite, which we still use to de-ice our sidewalks but don’t eat) and other minerals. A block of salt would be rubbed into meat, grinding the halite inside, to stop the growth of bacteria. In a world without refrigeration, the preserving power of salt was miraculous.
The “ministry of salt,” then, is a world-preserving ministry. Ministers of salt work themselves into families, institutions, and communities, and fight back the corrupting effects of sin. That means fostering peace and reconciliation; it means training husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers to love their families well; it means giving ourselves to improve the lives of our neighbors and communities. As Matthew Loftus, who lives and writes about the ministry of salt (even if he doesn’t use the term), says:
Every community needs a phalanx of people who take minor leadership roles and simply care for their neighbours. They stand between the established leaders and help mediate what is good and worthwhile to the vulnerable while keeping predators from within and without in check. Without these folks to stand in the middle, though, more people can become vulnerable or predatory.
The ministry of salt has some huge public victories, like the end of gladiatorial slavery in Rome, the abolition of slavery in Britain, and the Civil Rights movement in the US. (The fact that there were many Christians opposing the last two items is its own sad story).
But, as Jesus said of a cup of cold water, the ministry of salt happens on smaller scales too. Just in my church, I’ve seen people help friends fight to keep their marriages alive; people give familial care for widows; people spend hours to tutor, mentor, and even take in children in critical home circumstances. Some of these feel like small victories, and some feel like fighting Galadriel’s “long defeat” against decay. They are all part of the ministry of salt.
Salt also has a sealing effect, which we can see in the Old Testament. It binds relationships.
You shall season all your grain offerings with salt. You shall not let the salt of the covenant with your God be missing from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt. (Leviticus 2:13)
God’s covenant to provide food for the Aaronic priests (Numbers 18:19) and his covenant to keep the Davidic line (2 Chronicles 13:5) are both described as “covenants of salt.” In Ezra, those opposed to the rebuilding of the temple told Artaxerxes they were bound to him because “we eat the salt of the palace.” Perhaps because of salt’s preserving nature, and definitely due to its being precious in the day, sharing salt was a way of sealing oneself to another.
If Jesus’ followers are the salt, then, part of our mission is to “seal” our little corners of the world to God: not just to fight decay, but to consecrate. We are here to see as many other individuals, communities, and institutions sealed to God as we can. Paul doesn’t use the word, but he describes the effect of a faithful spouse in a family as a ministry of salt:
If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband.
– 1 Corinthians 7:13-14a
In the same spirit, Augustine records in his Confessions how a church leader told Augustine’s mother, when she was weeping over her yet-unconverted son, “It cannot be that the son of those tears should perish.” (How interesting that tears aren’t just water, but “saltwater!”). We don’t know exactly what God will do with our work, but the ministry of salt prays and labors to seal the world around us to God as an offering. As Peter Leithart writes:
The world is an altar. Humanity and the world are to become a single great offering to God. As we offer ourselves in obedient, suffering self-sacrifice, we become the seasoning on a cosmic sacrifice that makes it well-pleasing to God.
The Method: Self-Sacrificial Contact
Unlike light, salt cannot work from a distance. To do its preserving and consecrating work, it must be rubbed right into the contours, or “hidden” into the object it works on.
In the same way, the ministry of salt requires folding ourselves into the lives or the institutions we want to see changed. Like Daniel, Nehemiah, or Esther, we redeem from the inside by in a sense “belonging” to the world. We maintain relationships with friends and family members; we participate in our neighborhoods, work culture, and social institutions.
And just as a block of salt must be diminished to fulfill its purpose, we too will have to spend ourselves to be present to others and work for their good. This quote from ND Wilson always gives me good shivers:
Lay your life down. Your heartbeats cannot be hoarded. Your reservoir of breaths is draining away. You have hands, blister them while you can. You have bones, make them strain—they can carry nothing in the grave. You have lungs, let them spill with laughter. … I can be giving my fingers, my back, my mind, my words, my breaths, to my wife and my children and my neighbors, or I can grasp after the vapor and the vanity for myself, dragging my feet, afraid to die and therefore afraid to live.
If we are worn down anyway by time and chance, how better a way to go than salting the lives of others?
Our church has a tutoring ministry that helps about 40 kids after school, three days a week, for free (to the kids). Our small paid staff is supplemented by men and women who give hours of time driving, organizing, leading, teaching, and loving on kids who wouldn’t otherwise be part of their lives. There are many things that would be easier and (some days) more gratifying, but these volunteers are drawn to give part of their lives to help others. That self-spending, close-quarters time is the ministry of salt.
The Power: A Different Kind of Life
It could be objected that the life described above – disappearing into the world – is just as likely to deconvert Christians as convert non-Christians. Or to drape pious language around mere worldliness and spiritual cowardice.
The first objection isn’t without merit, and the second happens. But Jesus’ cryptic warning points us toward how a ministry of salt can be sustained:
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.
– Matthew 5:13b
This is about more than taste. A block of salt was a mix of useful halite crystals and useless other minerals. Once the actual salt had been ground out, the grains of other stuff in the “salt” were of no more use than sand. The Greek word rendered “lost its taste” here in other contexts means “become useless.” A block of “salt” with no more salt crystals is worthless.
Jesus is telling his followers that they have something special inside them, that makes them different from others, that can give preserving and sanctifying life to the world. In another instance of the image, recorded in Mark, Jesus says, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another” (9:50). What is the real salt that keeps the block of salt salty?
It’s the life of the Holy Spirit.
As Pentecost and the rest of the New Testament story show, the animating, empowering, convicting, converting life that pulls Jew, Greek, and barbarian, rich and poor, slave and free into a multicultural kingdom of priests is the life of Jesus, mediated by the Holy Spirit. The transformative power that withers sin and blooms godliness is the life of the Holy Spirit. The stink of death to the idolatrous and proud, the savor of life to the humble and meek, is the life of the Spirit in individual Christians and in the Church.
For salt, living well means dying. Paul twice compared his life’s work to being “poured out like a drink offering” over the congregations he was used to found. Anyone who’s given themselves to the needs of another knows the drain: pastors, social workers, stay-at-home moms, people caring for an aging relative.
We must be filled with a life outside our own to salt our little corner of Creation. We must be re-salted as we go. The ministry of salt requires that we be filled and renewed by the Holy Spirit. We must have his life worked into our hearts as thoroughly as we work ourselves into the world. We need him to plant and grow the Word in our hearts; to satiate our souls with God’s presence in prayer; to cut away our idols and set our worship on God.
This passage from George Muller’s Narrative shows how the life of the Spirit makes a life of service possible:
According to my judgment the most important point to be attended to is this: above all things see to it that your souls are happy in the Lord. Other things may press upon you, the Lord’s work may even have urgent claims upon your attention, but I deliberately repeat, it is of supreme and paramount importance that you should seek above all things to have your souls truly happy in God Himself! Day by day seek to make this the most important business of your life … the secret of all true effectual service is joy in God, having experimental acquaintance and fellowship with God Himself.
It’s possible for a well-intentioned Christian to serve and serve, knowing how great the needs of the world are, and neglect the need to be re-salted by the Spirit. But we are finite, dependent beings, and were designed to be filled as we give. Let yourself be mortal and dependent. Serve, give, be poured out; but let yourself be enlivened by the Spirit as you do. Let yourself rest in the grace of God; let yourself be sanctified as you sanctify; that you may have decades to see the glory of God salt your little corner of Creation.