Today’s text concerning salt is not original to the Gospel of Matthew. Mark was the first to record ‘salt’ as a metaphor for the Christian way of life. In Mark 9:50 we read, "Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another." For the author of the Gospel of Mark, salt was concerned with encouraging Jesus followers to be at peace with one other!
The author of the Gospel of Matthew, written more than a decade after Mark's Gospel, took a similar line in that salt is good but Matthew's version was not so much an encouragement but more a warning to his followers: "You are the salt of the earth; 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." That was a pretty horrendous statement to the Children of Israel and Gentiles who were part of the community of followers of Jesus that took its teaching from Matthew.
It is all too easy for outsiders to misunderstand the culture and language of another people living in another place - let alone in another time. It is so easy for us, two millennia away from the life of Jesus to read into the Jesus story things that just were not there.
As I keep reminding people, most Christians, ever since the end of the first century of the Common Era, have been Gentiles - not Jews. We have thought about Jesus and interpreted Jesus from very different perspectives to those of the earliest Jewish followers of Jesus because Jesus was not a Gentile but a Jew; Jesus was never a Christian but was born a Jew, lived according to Jewish culture and thinking, taught as a Jew and died as a Jewish political and religious reformer.
All four of our Christian Testament Gospels were written in times of brutal occupation and persecution by the Roman Empire but Mark’s Gospel was the only Gospel written during a time of actual war between the Children of Israel and Rome [64-73 C.E.] Additionally, for the communities of Matthew and Luke, their Gospels were written during the 9th decade expulsions of both Jew and Gentile Jesus followers from their synagogues. For those who were Jews, the Children of Israel, this meant the devastation of the denial of their birthright.
Also, the location and timing of the writing of the Gospels of Mark and Matthew are very important if we are to understand the conflicting interpretations of their respective metaphorical use of 'salt'. Mark was written in Rome before the cataclysmic destruction of the Jerusalem Temple whereas Matthew was probably written in Caesarea Maritima in the aftermath of not only the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. but also the mass suicide of Jewish freedom fighters at Masada in 73 C.E. This Jewish / Roman War, one of many, resulted in the destruction of the Temple and the end of the Temple cult of the Sadducees.
In my sermon last week I stated that Matthew, the most Jewish of the four Gospels in the Christian Testament, was attempting to retain the Jewishness of the new Christian faith in the face of the growing influence of Gentile members and a declining Jewish membership. Matthew was writing in the midst of despair and of yet another defeat of the Jewish nation. Matthew had taken the Mark metaphor of salt being an encouragement for the local Jewish and Gentile Followers of Jesus and transformed it into a warning that to follow Jesus meant maintaining the Jewishness of the evolving Christian community in Caesarea Maritima. Hence my amplified interpretation of Matthew's warning:
"We, both Jew and Gentile followers of Jesus, are the salt of the earth, the fertilising, protecting and sterilizing influences of the Law of Moses [i.e. of Judaism]. But if we lose our Jewish foundations within Christianity then just as salt loses its saltiness, we will become useless in God's Kingdom.
How can you be made 'salty' again? You can't! Salt that has lost its saltiness is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. If Jewish or Gentile members of this Christian community let go of the Law of Moses, or if we let go of the Jewishness of Jesus, how can we restore the saltiness to our new found faith? If we lose our Jewish roots then this Christianity will no longer be good for anything. Should that happen it will be thrown out and trampled under foot."
And what was the Jewish heritage that Matthew so much needed to keep alive in the evolving Gentile nature of this community of followers of Jesus?
First of all, Judaism was and remains a way of life that incorporates a daily prayer liturgy based upon Morning Prayer from Abraham, Afternoon Prayer from Isaac and Evening Prayer from Jacob.
The Shema is a paragraph in each of these prayers taken from the Torah, Deuteronomy 6:4-9: " Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the door posts of your house and on your gates." (NRSVA)
Also there are 613 Laws given to Moses that are taken from the whole Torah to be followed and lived, not as a burden but as a boundary within which the faithful can live freely within business, community and family.
From this arises a second point: Judaism, just like its sister religions of Christianity and Islam, has a long history, sadly sometimes more an ideal than a reality, of commitment to justice, peace and truth. These ethical standards were taught by Moses to the Children of Israel and then by many of the Prophets so that social injustice could be eliminated. They were also taught as personal ethics to guide the Children of Israel into the right ways of living within community.
Thirdly, there was an obligation for all Children of Israel to assist any one in need. To pass by on the other side [the story of the Good Samaritan comes to mind] - to pass by on the other side was a wicked breaking of the Torah. And the Talmud, the collection of the rabbinic interpretations and applications of the Torah, says that helpful kindness, love and mercy are fundamental requirements of every Jew.
And last but not least, the Jewish understanding is that the opposite of being gentle is not being aggressive, rough or violent but the opposite of being gentle is righteous anger whenever people suffer as a result of a lack of compassion, a lack of charity, a lack of forgiveness, a lack of humility, and a lack of respect for difference.
This is both the culture and the religious requirement within which Jesus was born and raised, and that Jesus himself took to a whole new higher plane of living.
We cannot understand Jesus unless we also appreciate the cultural and religious thinking of his time and place.
I remind you again that the original first century followers of Jesus were Jews - Children of Israel who adapted what they knew of the way in which Jesus had faithfully lived the Torah - the Law of Moses so that they could meet the needs of their 1st century communities.
The Christian Church needs to recover the Jewish heritage of Jesus and live it today if we are to have a chance of long-term survival. The Christian Church needs to find new ways of experiencing and communicating an authentic pre-Constantine Jesus message to the world in which we live, free from creeds, doctrines, dogma and all the post-4th century words of the Church with which, I believe, Jesus of Nazareth would be extremely puzzled!
And in our well-educated and questioning society, it is important that we do not continue within the early Gentile trap of literal interpretations of the Christian Testament concerning the person and the core compassionate justice message of Jesus the Jew. In my experience, some people who are full of doctrines and dogmas can be unyielding towards and judgemental of those who think or behave differently.
A major challenge to the leading religions today comes from adding layer upon layer of interpretation onto the foundational teaching of the original prophet's own character and lifestyle. The simple truth of all the great prophets of the world's great religions is compassionate justice.
As Rabbi Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus said, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to another: This is the whole Torah [the whole Law]. All the rest is commentary."
Just think how different the world would be if all religions lived that way!
We need to study the scriptures within the context not just of their writing but in the context of their application today within each community served by each and every church. This means that there will need to be less and less emphasis upon an orthodoxy of creedal belief and more a growing witness and action of what our experiences of Jesus mean for us, here today.
And that will mean something different for the people of this reasonably affluent, multicultural city than, for example, for those having to live within the gun and knife crime communities of south London or the so-called Benefits Streets within Britain's old industrial heartlands.
As part of the re-development plans of this church, you are seeking to identify what the surrounding community needs from us as a Church. Our corporate answer may determine the future well being of both this Church and its surrounding community.
So I leave you with a couple of questions: the first is this, "Although we as individuals and as a church do a great deal within and beyond our local community, what does it mean for us to be the salt of the earth as followers of Jesus, as people living the compassionate justice of Jesus amongst those of this community who are addicted to alcohol or drugs; to those who are the abused; the homeless; the hungry; the poor; the marginalised; the outsiders; the victims of injustice; the young and the old; those of other religions?
The other question picks up on something that Rev Rosemary Fletcher said in her sermon two weeks ago, "We are called to give today to feed the hungry, hence our active support for the local Food Bank, and yet we are also called today to ask the questions why in this, one of the richest countries in the world, are people poor and hungry and homeless?"
We are the people of compassionate justice. We are the salt of the earth but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? We are the light of the world so let our light shine before others, so that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven..........
Salt and Light 13 ‘You are the salt of the earth; 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. 14 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
The Law and the Prophets 17 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. [NRSV Anglicised]
Copyright ©: 2014, Rev John Churcher. All rights reserved. Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Anglicised ®, Copyright © 1989 American Bible Society. All rights reserved.