‘‘The salt of the earth”— these words of Christ, spoken in the Sermon on the Mount, have become such a common expression in the English language, it’s the name of one of my favorite restaurants near where I live.
Like so many other phrases borrowed from the Bible—such as being “the apple of the eye,” or “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”—much of the original significance of meaning has been lost to us, simply because of the passage of time and the natural differences between cultures, separated by thousands of miles and thousands of years.
Language and idioms take on their own trajectory too, and in the English language being the “salt of the earth” seems to have come to mean the sort of person who is down to earth—perhaps a bit plain or common but nonetheless resourceful, a reliable worker and a solid citizen, eager to give a helping hand when needed.
Oscar Wilde seemed to epitomize this view when he wrote, “Charming people such as fishermen, shepherds, plough-boys, peasant and the like are the very salt of the earth.” This seems to be the prevailing view on this side of the Atlantic, too. A book I saw not long ago describing common American expressions said that a man who is the salt of the earth is a “nice, gentle honest person.”
Now, of course, being nice, gentle, decent, and hardworking are all good traits, but, as we will see, that’s not at all what Christ meant when he said to his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men” (Matt. 5:13).
Today, when salt is cheap and comes neatly wrapped in tiny packages from fast-food restaurants, it’s hard to imagine that being the salt of the earth means anything more than adding a little bit of pizzazz to the world. When I was growing up in an Evangelical church, I always focused on the part where Christ talks about salt losing its taste.
As a lover of salt on all sorts of things like scrambled eggs, French fries, or buttered corn on the cob, I took away the message that we as Christians are called to make the world a better place—sort of like being a packet of zesty ranch, sprinkled into humanity to make the world somehow tastier for everybody. I knew too that salt helped preserved food, and over the years I heard a sermon or two teaching me that Christians were asked by God to preserve his presence in the world, so that made some sense to me.
But as with so many mysterious parts of the Bible, we can’t understand what it means to be the “salt of the earth” without looking deep into history to understand the role salt played in the ancient world, and how salt was viewed in the Old Testament, and how the Church has understood the phrase. When we dig deeper, we’ll learn that being the “salt of the earth” means a lot more than making the world a more appetizing place to live.
Salt in ancient times
In the ancient world, salt was a highly prized commodity and was a necessary ingredient in the building of empires. The ancients knew what we know: humans and animals both need salt to survive. Armies on campaign didn’t have time to hunt and gather food—salted meats, fish, cheese, and vegetables provided most of the necessary food to fuel the army. Alum salt was a necessary ingredient in making leather, which was used in the military for tents, armor, slings, footwear, shield covers, and gear for horses.
Salt played so vital a role in the expansion of the Roman Empire that sometimes soldiers were paid with salt, from which we owe the saying that a hard worker is “worth his salt.” This “salt-money” was called salarium, the source of our modern word salary. Indeed, even the word soldier comes from the French word for salt, solde, itself descended from the Latin root word for salt, sal. Sal in turn was derived from the Roman god of health, Salus, from which we derive modern words such as salve, salutary, salubrious, as well as salvation.
The city of Rome itself was founded on the banks of the Tiber in part because of salt. It was founded adjacent to an ancient Bronze Age road that had been a historic “salt highway.” This ancient salt highway became the first major road of the Roman Empire, known as the Via Salaria, which means literally “salt road.” It was along this thoroughfare that salt produced near the Adriatic Sea reached the interior of the growing Empire. Wherever the Romans went, salt went with them—and everywhere they went, they sought out new sources of salt.
Which brings us to the Dead Sea, the Sea of Galilee, and Christ’s Sermon on the Mount—and the creation of a New Kingdom, with a King of Kings, destined to become the salvation of the world.
Salt, fish, and the Sea of Galilee
The Sea of Galilee was an important source for food and income in Israel during the time of Jesus, as we know from so many familiar stories in the Gospels about miraculous hauls of fish. Christ called the fishermen Andrew, Peter, James, and John to become fishers of men.
Most of the fish caught in the Sea of Galilee weren’t sold fresh at market, since of course with no ice or refrigeration the fish would soon decay. Fish instead were preserved in salt provided either by the salt mines of Mt. Sodom (think here of Lot’s wife, turned to salt, a region long mined for salt), or from salt evaporated from the Dead Sea.
Christ’s Sermon on the Mount took place near the town of Magdala, situated on the northwest coast of the Sea of Galilee. The city’s roots stem from the ancient city of “Migdal Nunia,” which meant “fish tower.” Magdala had long been a commercial port where fish hauled in from the nearby sea was preserved in salt.
By the time of Jesus, fish processed in salt from the Sea of Galilee was being shipped throughout all the Roman Empire. The salted fish from Magdala became so famous throughout the Roman Empire that the Romans called the city Taricheae, which means “the place of salted fish.”
Those gathered to hear Jesus speaking at the Sermon on the Mount certainly knew of Magdala—indeed, Mary Magdalene is called such because she herself came from Magdala. Hearing Jesus speak of the “salt of the earth” in such close proximity to the fish-salting centers of Magdala had an immediate meaning to his listeners that is lost to us today.
Salt wasn’t just a condiment; these people knew that salt was necessary for life itself. It preserved food from spoiling and allowed nations and kingdoms to be built, and their salted fish was already in a certain way “the salt of the earth.”
But there is more significance to these words of Jesus. To understand this better, we need to explore salt in the Old Testament, especially something called “the salt of the covenant.”
Salt of the covenant
Salt played a vital role in Israel’s worship. The incense burned in the temple of meeting, for example, was made with sweet spices and frankincense “blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy” (Exod. 30:35). Salt was also a necessary part of sacrifice. God said, “You shall season all your cereal offerings with salt; you shall not let the salt of the covenant with your God be lacking from your cereal offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt” (Lev. 2:13). Here too we find the first of three occurrences of the curious phrase “salt of the covenant” in the Old Testament.
The second occurs in Numbers 18:19, which speaks of a “covenant of salt” between the priestly line of Aaron and God. Finally, and most importantly, we read in 2 Chronicles 13:5 a reference to the covenant God made with David: “Ought you not to know that the Lord God of Israel gave the kingship over Israel for ever to David and his sons by a covenant of salt?” To understand this “covenant of salt,” we need to look more closely at the covenant God made with David.
Through the prophet Nathan, God said to David, “I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth” (2 Sam. 7:9). The drama contained within these few words is easy to miss with a casual reading, but for anyone steeped in the history of Israel, as David was, these words would immediately call to mind one person: Abraham.
When God called Abram out of Ur, he made the same promise to him: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing . . . and by you all the families of the earth will bless themselves” (Gen. 12:2-3).
The covenant made with David is central to salvation history. It is the turning of the tide, the fulcrum in Israel’s history when God’s people could begin to see the unfolding of the promise God made to Abraham that Israel was to be a kingly nation: “Kings shall come forth from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you, and to your descendants” (Gen. 17:7).
Since these words were well known to David, imagine the effect Nathan’s words had on David when he said to him, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever” (2 Sam. 7:16). When David hears these words of Nathan, he realizes that all that he learned as a young boy about God’s plan of salvation for Israel was going to be fulfilled through him. It’s his throne and his lineage that was promised to Abraham so long ago!
David is in awe, and his humble response foreshadows Mary’s humble response in the Magnificat: “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that thou hast brought me thus far?” (2 Sam. 7:18 ff.). David eyes are opened: he and his sons are the kings promised to Abraham so long ago: “O Lord God; thou hast spoken also of thy servant’s house for a great while to come, and hast shown me future generations, O Lord God!”
This, then, is the covenant with David, sealed as a “covenant in salt.” The Jews listening to Jesus, who offered salt along with every sacrifice, would know of the “salt of the covenant” made with David and the promise made to Abraham. To be the “salt of the earth” would have called immediately to their minds the salvation promises of God.
But if the “salt of the covenant” is so significant to Christ’s death and resurrection and the covenants made with Israel, why can’t we find the phrase in Scripture? Here too we can see the problems that arise from being removed thousands of years, and the natural progression and change of language. “Salt of the covenant” is referenced in the New Testament, but we have to look carefully to find it. When we do, it makes us see being the “salt of the earth” through the light of the Last Supper and the New Covenant.
In the opening of Acts, which recalls the forty days following the Resurrection, most English translations render verses 4-5 similarly to the Revised Standard Version: “And while staying with them he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, ‘You heard from me, for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’” The phrase we need to focus on is “while staying with them.” This translation simply doesn’t communicate to English readers the significance of the original Greek that St. Luke used.
In his book Jesus of Nazareth: Part Two, Pope Benedict XVI pulls back the veil for us. The phrase rendered “staying with them” is a translation of the Greek word synalizomenos, which means literally “eating salt with them.” Christ isn’t merely staying with them, as if he’s saying his goodbyes before he leaves the earth—“eating salt with them” is a sign of a covenantal meal, such as the moments when Christ breaks bread with the apostles after his resurrection, recalling the Last Supper when he instituted the New Covenant. Here in Acts, Luke is recalling the salt of the covenant made between God and David and the fulfillment of the covenant made with Abraham that a son of his will become a king through whom all the families shall be blessed.
Pope Benedict tells us that this sharing of salt is “a sign of new and everlasting life” and points to “the risen Lord’s new banquet with his followers.” Thus it is directly associated with the Last Supper. There is an “inner bond,” Benedict says, “between the meal on the eve of Jesus’s Passion and the risen Lord’s new table fellowship: he gives himself to his followers as food and thus makes them sharers in his life, in life itself.”
Here we can begin to see the full significance of Christ’s call for us to be the “salt of the earth.” It is a call to be the salt of his New Covenant, taken to all the corners of the globe, just as the salt from Magdala had spread throughout the Roman Empire. We’re not called to merely be the “spice of life”—no, we are called to help bring salvation to the world.
Remember how the Romans connected salt with salvation, with their god, Salus? Christ has long been viewed as the Great Physician of our souls, especially by the Church Fathers. In a sermon on Matthew 20:30, for example, St. Augustine preached that “our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is the Physician of our eternal health.”
We must do more than just spread the gospel, however. Salt, most importantly of all, preserves. Thus we are called to preserve this Faith, just as the salt in Magdala preserved the fish caught by James and John, Peter and Andrew, so long ago. To be the “salt of the earth” means to pass on the apostolic faith, unaltered, pure of decay or corruption, until the end of time.
But of course, if we are going to pass the salt of the earth on to others, we need to sit at table with them, just as Christ did. We are called to bring the whole world to the banquet of Our Lord’s Passion and Resurrection. This means that we need to “eat salt with” all the peoples of the earth, to invite them to become part of the family of God.
Our example here must be Christ’s table fellowship with the apostles in Acts 1. It is by “eating salt with them,” Benedict explains of that moment, that Christ “is drawing the disciples into a new covenant-fellowship with him and with the living God; he is giving them a share in real life, making them truly alive and salting their lives through participation in his Passion, in the purifying power of his suffering.”
So the next time you hear someone speak of someone as the “salt of the earth,” let’s dismiss from our minds any anemic meaning that a Christian’s saltiness is merely about being a kind, decent, hardworking member of society. Although those are all well and good, we are called to so much more: to be emissaries and soldiers for the King of Kings, sharing his good news to all corners of the globe, just as Rome did, beginning with the Via Salaria, to bring the entire world into the family of God.
If you spend your life doing that, you’ll definitely be worth your salt. And Christ promised that your reward in heaven—or perhaps we should say your “salary”—will be great.
Built from the Salt of the Earth
One of the oldest salt mines in the world lies six miles outside of Krakow, Poland, in the city of Wieliczka. Begun in the thirteenth century, it was in operation continuously until the end of the twentieth century. Throughout those centuries, devout miners carved chapels at key shaft crossing points in order to pray for safety before work, or to honor those who died performing the dangerous labor. Carved completely from rock salt, the Chapel of St. Kinga, the most impressive of the many chapels, is a cavernous space that can accommodate 400 people. Everything—the altar, the bas-relief portrayal of saints, even the intricate chandeliers—was carved by hand from rock salt by the miners themselves.
In the Sign of Wisdom
One of the Church’s little-known sacramentals is blessed salt. By the time of St. Augustine, placing blessed salt on the tongue was a part of baptism, at least in the Western Church. Augustine writes in his Confessions that at his own baptism he was “signed with the Sign of His Cross and seasoned with His salt as I came new from the womb of my mother” (Confessions, book one, XI). In the Rituale Romanum from 1962, salt is blessed and then placed on the tongue while the deacon or priest says, “Take this salt in sign of wisdom. May it be for you likewise a token that foreshadows everlasting life.”
Blessed salt is often added to holy water, recalling a moment in Israel’s history when Elisha the prophet blessed putrid water with salt, making it pure and clean again for the people of Israel (2 Kings 2:19-22). It is often used in exorcisms and is connected with spiritual warfare. Blessed salt is even prescribed in a blessing for bells, dating from A.D. 750. In the ritual, the bell to be blessed is first covered with salt and oil and then washed with water.