~ If The Salt Loses Its Saltiness ~
Perhaps because of reading too quickly, or the movie scenes, many have the impression that the “Sermon on the Mount,” a wondrous compiling of Jesus’ teachings on almost everything, was given to the multitudes. However, “When he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying: Blessed are the poor in spirit…” (Matthew 5:1-3a, NIV).
The rabbinical tradition of teaching was the reverse of our practice. Today our professors of truth and faith stand to signal the importance of the teachings. The rabbis of Jesus’ time would sit, and disciples knew they wanted to convey something of importance. They would then sit around them, prepared to listen. Recall how Jesus stood to read Isaiah’s prophesies about Him in a synagogue, closed the scroll, then sat down to proclaim, “Today, this prophesy is fulfilled in your presence.”
So the many chapters in Matthew and Luke were addressed to His disciples, not to the world. We are the salt of the earth, not all the eavesdropping, curious mass of people drawn to Jesus. Sure, the crowds made their way to where Jesus was teaching His disciples, pushing to get within hearing range of the Master. And “the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one having authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matthew 7:29, NIV). We, however, when pondering Scripture, must keep in mind the intended audience, and the distinction between the disciples and the crowds. Remember, in the end, it was those same crowds and not the disciples who clamored and rallied for Jesus’ crucifixion.
Although Jesus was hailed as a prophet by many in His day and in our own, striking distinctions prevail. The prophets, like Jesus, proclaimed righteousness, judgment, repentance and God's words. Unlike Jesus, they didn't garner the hearts, love and following of the common and poor people who constantly thronged the Lord. No prophet ever came close to the visible righteousness and wisdom of Jesus. The people, unlike with Jesus, never rallied behind a prophet in pressure to make him their king.
Prophets were hated and considered dangerous. Many resisted their God-appointed task. Jeremiah even cursed his parents for his birth. But their holiness and anointing were recognized by even pagan enemies. They were feared. Herod did not want to behead John the Baptizer. He feared, respected and protected him. Even after the crew of the boat carrying Jonah understood the mortal danger of the storm was due to Jonah's resistance to his God, they resisted the solution of throwing Jonah overboard and would not have except for Jonah's own insistence.
Prophets were often lonely and frightened, although we get the impression God was constantly talking to them. After Ezekiel proclaims God's warning to Israel (Ezekiel 33), he waits about 12 years to hear from God again, this time a vision of the restoration of the great temple (Ezekiel 40). John the Baptizer hadn't heard directly from God for so long that, during his incarceration, he sent his disciples out to Jesus with questions. Yet their faith sustains their loyalty, echoed in the psalmist's words, “I will sing of your love and justice to you, O Lord, I will sing praise. I will be careful to lead a blameless life – when will you come to me?” (Psalm 101:1-2a, NIV). The New Jerusalem translation puts it, “My song is of mercy and justice; I sing to you, O Lord. I will walk in the way of perfection. O when, Lord, will you come?”
How wondrously prayed! King David renders awesome praises and love, committing to a life of righteousness, then slams us with the final line, “O Lord, when will you come, when will I hear from you again?” We suddenly realize that even during those spiritual deserts and seeming abandonment (“Why have you forsaken me, O God?”, (Psalm 22), the servant of God continues to be loyal and praising. This is a comfort to many of us who remain on the difficult, narrow road, unperceiving of God's faithfulness and steadfast presence. “Faith is the assurance of things not visible.”
To live otherwise is to destroy the savor of our salt. Jesus said such tasteless and impotent salt is useless, to be thrown away. Any Christian “worth his salt” will keep that salty flavor strong. And his or her light must be set on a hill, or, at least, on the ceiling or stand, not under the bed, as Jesus put it.
This can be difficult and challenging even in our more free and religiously tolerant nations. For crucial reasons, the apostles mandated by word and example to “not forsake the gathering of believers.” But after such gatherings for worship, study and mutual encouragement, Christians scatter throughout the world. Christians teach in government schools, some that supply students with pregnancy protection devices and help them get abortions without their parents knowing; work for corporations, some whose raw products are produced by foreign child slave labor, or that produce weapons of mass (and indiscriminate) destruction; for law enforcement who must sometimes arrest non-violent abortion protesters; for justice departments that prosecute teachers for suggesting alternatives to Evolution as an explanation for the origin of life, for prisons that keep many innocent people, in tiny cells for 22 hours a day for years. And I am grateful for these Christians and their placement in such work places. We need them there.
Some modern thinkers criticize what seems to be a biblical support of slavery when Paul urges slaves to be obedient and work “as though you work for Christ.” Why didn't Paul urge civil disobedience and the overthrow of slavery? We will set aside the crucial differences between slavery in that culture and the slavery we have come to know through the atrocities of the past few centuries, including our own day where slavery of children, women and men is thriving and evil. (We will also not examine the nature of the zealous practice of civil disobedience by Christians throughout history, beginning with the apostles themselves who, after being whipped and warned not to mention Christ, left and began preaching within the hour.)
Critics of Paul's instruction for slaves to keep working “as though working for Christ,” (or the more general “all you do, do it in the name of Christ,”) fall right into the heart of the Gospel: the internal transformation of persons and institutions, not their external overthrow only to make room for another similar replacement…”Overcome evil with good.”
In practice, Christian police do their work as though working for Christ; Christian military personnel work as though working for Christ; Christian prison guards work as though working for Christ, and Christian prisoners do the time working for Christ. Thus institutions and people are changed from within.
The pressure upon Christians to not do this is tremendous in free nations. They must continually be ready to sacrifice, to decide and weigh consequences and their worth. (Of course, the Godly pressure is on as well, for we are told to not weigh the cost of discipleship.) This pressure increases to the extremes of human endurance and resolve in totalitarian nations where the very lives of Christians and their families are at stake.
Using Jesus’ metaphors, we must decide, in prayer and meditation, how salty we are to remain, and how high and bright to set our lights. It was said during the American Revolutionary War, “These are times that try men's souls.” Without the Holy Spirit making our bodies His temples and living sacrifices, and we abiding corporately as the body of Christ, the times of the last 2000 years would have killed the soul of Christianity.
Christ proclaimed us, all His disciples, all who bear His name of Christian, to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world. Then He presented the “what if” possibility of the salt losing its saltiness and the light being hidden. Undeniably, Christians are everywhere. A little salt, a grain here and one there, will take care of a lot of earth. A light here and one there around the world will dispel a lot of darkness. The prayer of “May your will be done,” that the multitudes in our schools, factories, prisons, corporate offices, government agencies, will taste the salt in the air like one strolling the beach, and see warm glows of pure light, like one resting by a fire on a cold night, is a prayer we are called upon to make into a palpable reality. How pleasing and delightful to our Beloved Lord to witness His children lovingly fulfilling His will!
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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Weekly Reflections © December 14, 2002
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