Salt and Light

Roderick P. Frohman Third Presbyterian Church
February 12, 2012 Matthew 5: 13-16

It is possible to “over-hear” the gospel. This is an occupational hazard for those who are here on a very regular basis. This is an occupational hazard for ministers, too. Frequent worshippers hear the same readings and stories from scripture so often that we do not hear them in depth. We “over-hear” the gospel. (Fred Craddock, Overhearing the Gospel, c. 1978) Our spiritual depth perception is thus distorted by our very familiarity with the story. “Oh, yeah” we say, “I’ve heard that one before.” We tune out. How many of you had that reaction when you first heard me read the Gospel lesson for the morning? Confession is good for the soul.

These words are so familiar to us that we are impervious to their shocking truth, as were, perhaps, the first disciples. It takes a while for these words to sink in. What is penetrating about these words is that they are spoken to us in the 21st Century. (8:30) yes you, ……… you Don Pryor, are the salt of the earth. And you……… Karen Walker, are the light of the world. (10:45) yes you, …. Beth Laidlaw are the salt of the earth, and you, ….. Nancy Adams are the light of the world. Some may be thinking, “I hope he stops now”, especially the people behind me in the choir. Somehow they think they are immune. Yes you…. Helen Tiss, you are the salt of the earth, and you, … Linc Spaulding, you are the light of the world. You, …. members of Third Presbyterian Church, are the salt of the earth and light of the world.

It has been remarkable how this past week families of Third Church have surrounded the Kopp family in their deep grief. You have been light in a very, very dark place. Twelve year old Tyler was an active volunteer in our Food Cupboard. There is a growing movement among the children and youth of the church to organize a special collection of food for our Food Cupboard in Tyler’s memory. In so doing you will be the salt of the earth.

Well now that the gospel is personalized a bit, perhaps we are over-hearing it a little bit less.


Have you thought about the value of salt? I went online and did a little bit of research. All biological life started in salty sea water. We all emerged from the primeval ooze-ocean by way of a slow and steady evolution to our current status. Small wonder then that the clear fluids in our bodies are very close to seawater. When I go to visit folks in the hospital I sometimes read the labels on those plastic IV bags; glucose, sodium, potassium. Sugar, salt and bananas— all in the right combination. Sodium remains a key ingredient to maintain an electrolyte balance in our cells. I suppose it could also be said, “You are the banana of life,” but that lacks a certain ring.

Do you remember those salt tablets in basic training? Do you remember the plink, plink of the salt pill on the tin tray in the mess hall line. Like yesterday? I remember that those who didn't ingest them fainted in the hot sun of Ft. Knox, KY back in the summer of '65.

Salt is both a seasoning and a preservative. Before the invention of refrigeration, salt was used as a meat preservative. Apparently a chemical reaction between salt and meat slowed the growth of the trichina worm which caused trichinosis, a disease of human tissue caused from eating bad meat. Soldiers in the ancient world were often paid in salt so that they could season their food with it and use it to replace the loss of salt through the perspiration of battle. This is where we get the expression, “He isn't worth his salt.”

So when Jesus tells his disciples that they are the “salt of the earth,” his words are quite pointed. He is plainly saying, you and your actions are the preservative and seasoning presence of human life. What you do with your faith and your life does make a difference. And further, Jesus reminds us, “If you don't use your salt, it will lose its taste and will have to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” So we do not become the salt of the earth through some act of our own, rather we are the salt of the earth.

You recall that this “salt of the earth” teaching is part of the Sermon on the Mount. So the teaching comes in a particular context. In effect Jesus is saying to his disciples, now that I have taught you, now that I have flavored you, seasoned you, salted you, you are the salt of the earth. So the real question becomes, “How will we use the saltiness which we already possess?”

It is really not all that complex. Salt is used when it comes in contact with another substance like meat, water, vegetables. We are only the salt of the earth when we are in contact with that which needs (to be) salted. Salt that is unused will lose its flavor. Salt that is used invades that which it touches. We cannot be the salt of the earth except in contact with the world around us that needs to be salted.


When Jesus began teaching his followers about being the light of the world he put them in direct competition with all the luminaries of the Greco-Roman world of his day. The rulers of Palestine were representatives of the Roman emperor who was purported to be one of the great lights of the world, a demi-god. The great truths which poured from the temples of the empire, from the Parthenon, the Areopagus—from the Harvards and yes, even from the Princeton’s of the day, those truths were meant to be light for the world. Hellenistic religion and philosophy taught that a divine spark resided in human nature and education would fan that spark into a fire.

A Jewish male in Jesus’ day, if he wanted to be truly educated, would go the temple in Jerusalem and there, like St. Paul, would sit at the feet of the teachers of the Jewish law and be instructed in the traditions of the Pharisees, in order to be what Paul would later describe in his “Letter to the Romans, as “A guide to the blind and light to those who are in darkness.” (Romans 2:17-20) Then, in order to be totally enlightened, a citizen of Rome could travel to an academic city like Tarsus and there sit at the feet of Gamaliel, or Seneca, or Tacitus or Horace. Then one could shed both religious and philosophical light on the world. Then a person could truly be said to have on their high beams, and dazzle every one with their brilliance.

And yet Jesus said to these ordinary folk gathered for the Sermon on the Mount; fisherman, farmers, carpenters and homemakers, “you, my followers, you are the light of the world and salt of the earth.” Who me? No, surely you jest.

Robert Raikes was a prominent citizen and editor of a local newspaper in England in the 18th century. He also was a loyal member of the Church of England. Raikes lived during the time when the English industrial revolution was in full swing. In England in the late 1700's child labor was regularly practiced and was an important source of cheap labor for that industrial revolution. Children were taken from their homes and housed in squalid dormitories and worked “12 to 15 hours per day, seven days per week.” (T.S. Ashton, The English Industrial Revolution 1760 to 1830, NY, Oxford, 1964 p. 78) While the members of the British parliament were attempting to abolish international slave trade (first tried in 1788) they were blind to child slavery at home. So Mr. Raikes began to publicize the abuses of the English industrial barons in his newspaper and then petitioned them to release the children to him on Sundays. So, in 1780 Raikes “hired four teachers at a few pennies per week, gathered as many children as possible and each Sunday instructed the children in reading, writing, arithmetic, habits of cleanliness, morality and the Bible. He took all comers. Raikes’ biographer notes that all he required was ‘clean hands, clean faces and hair combed. If you have no clean shirt, come in the one you have on,’ he told the children.’” (Vanguard Magazine, May 1980, Program Agency UPCUSA)

What did Robert Raikes call his project? Sunday School. He is the founder of the Sunday School movement. When Raikes’ ideas jumped the ocean into a new American nation, they had a revolutionizing effect. Especially in New England, the Sunday School movement gave birth to the claim of several states that they owed equal opportunity to all citizens for basic education. (Ibid) The American public school system owes its origins, in part, to the British Sunday School movement.

Raikes understood how to use the salt and light he possessed. He just got next to people, sprinkled it and rubbed it on. He shined light in dark places. Then new lives were seasoned and enlightened.

But do you remember the warning? “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. No one lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel, but on a lamp stand and then it gives light to everyone in the house."

“Salt can lose its [mineral] integrity, its identifying quality as salt.” Light can be hidden or grow dim. “This does not occur suddenly, of course, but so gradually that those to whom it happens do not perceive themselves as changing and cannot later identify a single time or place when their faith evaporated.” (Craddock, Christian Century Magazine, Jan 1990 p. 98)

Like Mark Twain said, “When I went off to college I put my religion in a trunk, hoping to come back to it when I had graduated. When I came back later and opened the trunk, it was empty.”

This has been a very traumatic week in the life of Third Church. But we all go through periods of the blahs when we are not particularly ill or depressed, but just feel tasteless and dull, like a Rochester winter. In the midst of our dullness the temptation is to be guarded and protective and take no risks; to hold back our enthusiasm, our compassion, our caring, and our commitments.

Garrison Keillor tells this story about Ollie from Minnesota who went out up North to the BWCA to hunt a grizzly bear. Ollie was gone three days. When he returned without his prize, he was greeted by Lars and Sven. “What’s the matter Ollie” they quizzed, “Did you lose the trail?” “Naw” replied, Ollie, “I kept on the trail all right.” “Vell,” said Sven, “Vat vas the difficulty?” “Vell,” said Ollie, “De footprints of the bear vas getting’ too fresh, so I quit."

It is possible that we over hear the gospel because we just get too close for comfort. We get so close to the call of God that we lose our nerve, and timidly hide our light under a bushel.

Notice that Jesus suggests that faith is lived between risk and protection. The metaphor of risk is like “building a city upon a hill which cannot be hidden.” This “might be a sound strategy for civil defense but the increased visibility of such a city increases its vulnerability and likelihood of targeted hostility. Or, the opposite of risk is putting our candle light under a box. This certainly reduces the risk of having it blown out but the price for such protection is darkness.” (Ibid.)

Jesus is teaching two inter-related truths:

1. There is an inverse relationship between being salty or tasteless, or shining our light versus living in the dark. If you don’t use it you lose it.

2. Notice that Jesus does not say, you should be salt of the earth or try to be light of the world. We ARE salt and light, for better or worse.

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