Salt as a Preserving Influence within Judaism

Like the third beatitude, the “earth” (γῆ) in Matthew 5:13 refers to the land of Israel. If I am right about salt as a preserving agent, then Jesus is telling his circle of disciples they are the ones who will preserve Israel (and not the Pharisees).

The worthless salt is “thrown out and trampled (καταπατέω) under people’s feet.” Although this is the type of thing one might do with worthless salt, there may be a hint of coming judgment on people who do not hear Jesus’s message. Later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns against giving sacred things to dogs and casting “pearls before swine” (Matt 7:6). This is a troubling verse for many reasons, but on the surface it appears to warn disciples they will be attacked (trampled and torn to pieces) when they preach the Gospel to some types of people. In Luke’s version of the parable of the sower, some seed falls on the path and is trampled (Luke 8:5) In Matthew 13:4 the seed on the path is eaten by birds and Jesus interprets this as the “evil one” snatching away the word of God.

Although the phrase does not appear in Matthew, in Luke 21:24 Jesus says “Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles” (using the cognate verb πατέω). Revelation 11:2 is a possible allusion to this verse, the Gentiles will trample (πατέω) Jerusalem for 42 months. But Gentiles trampling Jerusalem appears in clear eschatological texts the Hebrew Bible as well. For example, in Daniel 8:13 Daniel asks how long the sanctuary and host will be “trampled underfoot?” Although it is not the same word as Matthew 5:13, the LXX uses a related verb, συμπατέω. Daniel 8 refers to the desecration of the Temple prior to the Maccabean revolt, but Jesus uses the language of Daniel 9:27 to predict the coming fall of Jerusalem (Matt 24:15).

Perhaps Jesus implies a contrast between his (true) disciples and those who are not his disciples. The “not the salt of the earth people” are the Pharisees and other leaders in Jerusalem who are not hearing Jesus nor accepting him as the messiah. After the Sermon on the Mount Jesus demonstrates his authority through a series of miracles (Matthew 8-9), but there are also a series of stories describing resistance to Jesus. The “teachers of the Law” think Jesus is blaspheming when he forgives sin (9:3), the Pharisees complain Jesus is eating with sinners (9:11), the disciples of John the Baptist question Jesus on fasting (9:14) and even John himself wonders if Jesus is really the messiah (11:1-19). Whole villages reject Jesus (11:20-24), the Pharisees condemn Jesus for breaking the Sabbath (12:1-14) and eventually declare his power of demons proves he is an agent of Beelzebul (12:22-37). After refusing to give the Pharisees a sign (Matt 12:38-45), even Jesus rejects his own family in favor of his true followers (12:46-50). By the end of Matthew it is the Pharisees who are judged as blind guides, those who cannot preserve Israel any longer and are in danger of being cast out (Matt 23).

With this overview of Matthew in mind, the saying in Matthew 5:13 may be an encouragement to the disciples to be the preserving agent within Second Temple Judaism and a veiled threat to those who reject Jesus as messiah. That the Pharisees are the ones to be tossed out and trampled is a typical ironic reversal of expectations: those who think they will enter the Kingdom of Heaven will remain outside while others enter the Kingdom before them.

I find this a remarkable warning to contemporary Christianity. There are far too many people who claim to be following Jesus but they are more like the Pharisees. It is very easy for a church or a Christian to become so wrapped up in what people think counts toward religion and piety and completely miss the whole point of following Jesus. This might take the form of religious practices which lose their meaning, or the kind of political activism which mixes a poor understating of the Bible with a radical Americanism. To what extent is Jesus’s warning to those about to be cast out and trampled underfoot a call to the modern Christian church?

13 thoughts on “Salt as a Preserving Influence within Judaism

  1. It is interesting how this passage is not a great metaphor that the church is called to interpret. Often times the church looks at verses and assumes them as great metaphors that need to be dissected and understood. Many of these passages come from the Old Testament and the church tries to interpret them like a parable rather than looking into the literal meaning and context of the passage. As McKight states “It is easier to think of salt and light as clever metaphors and then their meanings are clear to spin off into practical living exercises, than it is to think of the metaphors in the context of the Bible’s big story” (55). While looking into the big story that the Bible has, there were many people within the country of Israel that were not truly following God. Many of these people were teachers of the law, teaching the law but not the more important meaning behind them. Rather than changing hearts, they were simply changing actions. Jesus’ call to the disciples to be the salt that will preserve Israel is no light matter. Jesus is calling the disciples, and ultimately the church, to follow in His ways and preserve the world from destruction.

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  2. Worthless salt is thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. Worthless can refer to the people that people look down upon and the people that people despise and do not want to interact with or even look upon. I believe that is what the worthless salt is referring to. A warning that many Christians need to be aware of is that they will be denied and will be looked down upon and will be cursed at because of their obedience and faithfulness of Jesus. People will attack them when they preach the Gospel and other people will deny them at the moment they begin speaking. There is a parable that relates to that. Some seeds fall on the path and is trampled but the seed on the path that is eaten by the birds means that the evil one is snatching away the word of God so that other people can be aware of God’s words.
    In the article, it talks about how Jesus has true disciples and those who are not. The ones who fake that they are true followers of Christ and say things just to be viewed as a Christians and do not really believe it. Jesus encourages us to eat and sit with the people that others reject and to be involved with the people that people do not love. We are called to love the unloved and bring the word of God to every corner of the earth. Christians will be tossed away and be trampled on but our God is stronger than human and any word that brings us down. It is easy to fall into the world of temptations and of patterns of the world to please the people around us and not God. We are called to be the ones who show the heart of God.

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    • Worthless salt is thrown out being trampled under people’s feet this is a great understanding very catching it a great way to make this with this metaphor it makes sense to help make an understanding of what is being said. I also agree with you that the worthless salt is referring to many Christians have to be warned that they may be denied and looked down upon and will be cursed at because of their obedience and faithfulness to Jesus.

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  3. Regarding modern phariseeism, I remember reading somewhere that works-centric religions argue and split about actions while doctrine-centric religions argue and split about beliefs. This made me think that, as much as modern Christians look down on “legalism,” we have our own legalism of beliefs. Belief these doctrines and you’re ok… if not, the fate of your soul is in question.

    Correct heart attitude is not inherently belief-driven (as we like to imagine in our modern forms of self-righteousness). Correct heart attitude means we are salty.

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  4. The worthless salt is ‘thrown out and trampled, under peoples feet”. If we are the Salt and Light of the Earth, and are not USEFUL salt, we will be thrown out under peoples feet to be stepped on. With this being said, not being useful would be that we are not using our gifts for Christ, not sharing his name or being good disciples for Him. This reminds me of the verse in Revelation, 3;16 “So because you are lukewarm, neither hot or cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” Again, if we are not doing what Christ has laid out for us, we will be thrown out (spit out). This is a great warning to all of us Christians, in the fat that we can, and will be thrown out. When salt is losing its saltiness it gets tossed out. McKnight writes that “Jesus’ language is shaped to warn the followers of Jesus of the consequences of diminishing their impacts: salt less salt is thrown away and covered lights are useless.” (pg. 64) If I had to answer this question with one sentence, I would answer it with this one. There are very easy to determine answers to this question. Take this walk seriously, or we will eventually be thrown out to be stepped on, or spit out for being look warm.

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  5. Just like everyone else I’m going to talk about worthless salt being thrown out because that’s pretty much the part thats going to hit home for everyone. Now GGF people don’t take this the wrong way because I love you guys and grew up with you but we as a church group tend to fall into this area of becoming legalistic about our walk with Christ. It is the problem with being largely intellectual. You just get people in the church who will argue theology all day long without actually doing anything that would identify them as a christian other than church attendance. If Christ calls us to be the salt of the earth than we must be salty. Salt differentiates us from those who are non salty, and if you can’t tell the difference between your life and someone’s life who is without salt then there is a problem. We are called to stand out from the others in this world.

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  6. What a great awakening call this is to the Christian church today. McKnight writes that worthless salt is thrown onto the ground and trampled under people’s feet, but if we are to be the salt and the light of the earth, saltless salt, and covered lights are useless (McKnight pg. 64). Unfortunately, there are so many people in the church today that are letting their light go dim and are losing their saltiness, putting on a face while at church, and only doing what they think is necessary and losing sight of what it really means to follow God. In Luke 10:27 we are reminded that God wants us to follow him wholeheartedly, not just to be somewhat salty or a dimming light, but to follow Him fully. We should certainly take this as a warning to the Christian church to fully follow the Lord so that we will not be trampled on the ground.

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    • Very interesting to read about how basically if we are not the salt of the earth or the light to this world then we are worthless. Just leads more into how we are supposed to actually follow through with our claim as a Christian rather than just saying it and hoping people will believe you. I believe the Christian Church in general is lacking in the sense of teaching about this very important passage.

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  7. wow, I love this passage, It is just such a heavy topic in thinking about how in response to your blog, you are ether salty or you are not. This is something that I think I have not thought about enough in the fact that I believe that I am a child of God, and I think too many times I am not being the best child of God I could be. This is a sobering thought in terms that there will be people that are not the salt of Gods earth, and that is a scary thought that they one day may not see the Kingdome of heaven. in the story itself, it seems that the McKnight book alludes to telling us that the story about the sault is a warning sign that we should want to do a good thing because we are in the family of God. “The text is a poetic warning about judgment if one does not sustain ones saltiness” Mcknight. I really enjoyed this reading and I gained a lot from it.

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  8. Modern Christian Church is a broad spectrum. In order to answer the question, I will go into an anecdote that happened to me last week. I have a friend that recently moved up north in order to go to college. She is a baby Christian going to a secular school. The challenges she has faced are real, as most of her “friends” are non-believers. Recently she started hanging out with a girl, who turned out to be bisexual (we will call her Sarah for the sake of this post). In order to make things clear and transparent, my friend clarified to Sarah that she was heterosexual. Sarah did not like it and was quick to accuse my friend for judgement. My friend reached out to me asking what to do and I told her to just let Sarah know that she wasn’t judging her and that she was going to love her as a friend, but just wanted to make sure they were on the same page as far as the friendship relationship. What my friend replied surprised me. She said: “I cannot lie to her, I AM judging her for her sin, we are called to see others through God’s lens and judge them”.
    I believe being the “salt” of the earth could be taken many different directions. Being called to “preserve” Christianity could come across as a command to encourage judgement and choose to point just like the Pharisees instead of focusing on relationships. I think this is a way in which our church is failing; by not being able to find the balance between preserving Christianity and mingling with those who need it the most.

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  9. This is a perfect example to share to those who do not think the Bible applies to modern times. The comparisons between the modern church and the Pharisees of the past are alarming. I think an important point to take away from this is that just as Jesus said “you are” talking specifically to his followers and not Israel or the Pharisees. I think this applies today as if Jesus is saying “you are” to his followers and not to the Modern Church. Not to say that we cannot all come together as a church and be the salt of the earth and light of the world together but that we should be careful not to become complacent in our church life.

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