Salt Life

by Jason Micheli

Length: 26:00

Matthew 5.13  (click to see Scripture text)

August 7, 2022

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On September 2, 1982, Helen Woodson was arrested for pouring blood— her own blood, carried in her baby boy’s bottle— onto the Presidential flag, the U.S. flag, and the Presidential Seal during a White House tour. It was an odd, offensive, seemingly ineffective act. A self-described “Christian resister-mother,” at her trial, Woodson shared these words to the judge:

“For the past 18 years my life has been children— one birth child, 7 adopted children, and 3 foster children. We also share our home with a paraplegic Cuban refugee and with ex-prisoners and others who need shelter. All of these people are considered of little value by society. They are of no value in a society based on competition, profit, and war, yet it is these useless people who have taught me what I know of the preciousness of human life that transcends damage and imperfection…

Death in war is preventable. It can happen only if we allow it, and if we allow it, we will come for judgment not before the Superior Court of the District of Columbia but before Christ and the murdered innocents. 

The acts through which I serve life at home are considered exemplary and noble; my nonviolent witness at the White House is considered criminal. After more than two years of prayer which preceded my civil disobedience and after the seventy-six days I have spent in the DC Jail, I cannot, in all good conscience, see the difference between the two.”

Years later, while serving out her twelve-year prison sentence, Helen Woodson told a Washington Post reporter, “I am not surprised that you have not heard of me. For the most part, the media is not interested in the only true power at work in the world— the non-violent acts of faith that witness to the Kingdom.” 

The world, she said, is not much interested in the salt of the earth. 

To be sure Helen Woodson is an extreme exemplification of what it might mean for Christians to constitute the salt of the earth, yet she’s a helpful reminder that who Jesus would have us be is far more radical than many of our Sunday School songs suggest. “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine” makes it sound like Jesus merely wants us to set good personal, moral examples when, in fact, salt and light are terms Jesus employs to show that those whom he has called have been conscripted into a clash of cultures. 

A former teacher of mine, David Bentley Hart, writes that when he finished translating the New Testament the work left him with a deep sense of melancholy along with the suspicion that most of us who go by the name “Christian” ought to give up the pretense of wanting to be Christian. 

Notice the distinction. 

He didn’t say we should give up the pretense of being Christian. 

He said we should give up the pretense of wanting to be Christian. 

“Would we ever truly desire to be the kinds of people that the New Testament describes as fitting the pattern of life in Christ?” he asks. Barnabas, for example, on becoming a Christian, cashed in his 401K and handed over all the money to the body of Christ. Just imagine, the character a community would need to exemplify in order for a stranger to trust it with all of their needs. Thus, David Bentley Hart notes, the first Christians were “a company of extremists, radical in their rejection of the values and priorities of society not only at its most degenerate, but often at its most reasonable and decent. They were rabble, a disorderly crowd. They lightly cast off all their prior loyalties and attachments: religion, empire, nation, tribe, family and safety.” They did so, Hart argues, because one thing that is in remarkably short supply in the New Testament is common sense. The Gospels, the Epistles, the Book of Acts, Revelation—all of them, Hart says, are “relentless torrents of exorbitance and extremism” in which there are no comfortable medians, no areas of shade, for everything is cast in the harsh and cleansing solvent of their conviction that Christ had made them the salt of the earth. The first Christians may have been a rabble; nevertheless, their difference from the world was powerful to change the world. 

For example— 

In 361, Flavius Claudius Julianus rose to the imperial throne. The Church remembers him by the name Julian the Apostate. The nephew of Constantine, Julian had been raised a Christian, but as a young man he repudiated the faith, recommitted himself to the paganism of his forefathers, and dedicated himself “to claiming back from Christianity those who had abandoned the ever-living gods for the corpse of a Jew.” Upon ascending to the emperorship, Julian toured the region of Galatia in 362 and quickly lashed out, enraged at the decay he found in every pagan temple: walls with flaking paint, statues crumbling to pieces, altars unsplashed with blood. 

Julian searched for a reason to explain why an inferior Galilean superstition had triumphed in the people’s hearts over the true gods of Rome. “How apparent to everyone it is,” Julian complained, “and how shameful, that our own people lack support from us when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galileans support not only their own poor, but ours as well.” The blame, Julian concluded, lay with the pagan priests themselves. They had failed to devote themselves to the poor and the needy whose comfort was their charge. To that end, Julian developed a welfare program out of his own funds for the pagan priests to distribute. The old worship might be enlivened, Julian thought, if the people realized that care for the weak and unfortunate had always been a concern of Rome’s gods. “Teach them that doing good works was always our practice of old,” Julian instructed his priests in sending the welfare funds. 

That the gods cared for the poor came as news to the priests of those gods. 

They wrote back to Julian that the gods cared nothing for the poor and to think otherwise was “airhead talk.” The heroes of Rome’s former devotion had scorned the weak and the downtrodden. As the pagan priests put it to Julian, he may have been quite sincere in his hatred of “the Galilean’s teachings” and their impact upon his empire, but he was blind to the irony of his plan to combat Christianity: it was itself irredeemably Christian.” In other words, by the middle of the fourth century Christ’s rabble had transformed the values of the empire not through arms or affluence but by being what Christ had made them— the salt of the earth. Much like the way the culture of a new minority community mingles with and ultimately changes their host culture, the followers of Jesus had made a difference in the world by being bold enough to be different from the world. 

This notion that a minority subculture can profoundly shape and reshape its host culture is key to rightly interpreting the Sermon on the Mount, particularly the indicative with which Christ begins the sermon proper, “You all are the salt of the earth.” You may not know their names or dates, but I imagine you would not be surprised to discover that not soon after Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount theologians and biblical scholars began finding ways to explain how Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount does not actually apply to those who follow Jesus. 

For instance, one interpretive tradition qualifies our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount as a so-called interim ethic; that is, the Sermon describes a manner for the community to live in the meantime between the Old Age that is passing away and the New Age inaugurated by Christ. However, though he is perfect and without sin, Jesus was not so good with telling time. It turns out— according to this interim ethic interpretation— Jesus was wrong to announce an imminent end of the world. If the End is indeed near, if the clock’s ticking, then it’s reasonable to bear witness by loving your enemies, laying down the sword, and forsaking your attachments to Mammon. After all, would you bother stocking your pantry with purchases from Costco if you knew the second coming was coming in a matter of days? If the apocalypse is now, then we can put up with being persecuted for a time, knowing that our persecutors will get their comeuppance soon and very soon. But, now that we know Jesus and the early church were wrong on the timing, then the Sermon loses its moral force— or so this interim ethic tradition interprets Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. 

Another way of establishing that Christ did not mean in the Sermon on the Mount what Christ clearly says in the Sermon on the Mount is to posit that Jesus is not providing a pattern for how the community of disciples are to live before the unbelieving world but rather Jesus is only recommending how disciples should engage as individuals with other individuals. With the Sermon, Jesus is not constituting a nation within nations, a contrast community, or an alternative politics. Jesus is instead speaking in spiritual and individualistic terms. This is the so-called two kingdoms doctrine with which Martin Luther taught Protestants to read Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. If you want to learn how you as a Christian should engage your Monday through Friday work, Luther taught, then you should read your job manual not the Sermon on the Mount. A Christian who is a mechanic has no need for the Sermon on the Mount in order to be a Christian mechanic. The Sermon on the Mount, this way of reasoning goes, is not telling us what we should actually do (that is, to love our enemies or trust God to provide or pray for those who persecute us). The Sermon on the Mount instead teaches us the attitude we should have in our hearts. Thus, if you’re a Christian who happens to be an executioner in a penitentiary, well then, you have no choice but to kill the condemned. But you can love him in your heart while you kill him with your hands. You don’t actually have to give to the panhandler at the intersection— give even more than he begs from you, as Jesus says— but you should have compassion for him in your heart. 

Such is the way the two kingdoms doctrine interprets the Sermon. 

 

If Jesus is wrong about anything it’s not telling time; it’s in his choice of friends. The history of the Church demonstrates that we are inexhaustibly creative in finding ways to insist that Jesus did not mean what Jesus said. 

Years ago on PBS Bill Moyers produced a series on Religion in America. During the episode devoted to so-called Christian fundamentalism, Moyers interviewed a pastor in Boston who attempted to illustrate the character of his congregation by sharing a pastoral situation with one of his parishioners. The parishioner’s wife had committed adultery. She had repented of this sin and had even confessed it publicly to the church. After a long and intentional discernment process marked by appropriate penitential discipline, the church had received her back into the fold, forgiven. 

Her husband, however, was not so keen on pardoning the wife who had cheated on him and balked at the idea of receiving her back, into his home or his church. 

The pastor responded to the husband, saying, “Who the hell do you think you are? You weren’t born again into a vacuum. You were born again into a community. The world’s already full of people who won’t forgive the people who did them wrong. This is what it means to be salt of the earth. You don’t have the right to reject her, for as a member of our church you too must hold out the same forgiveness that we as a church hold out. Therefore, I’m not asking you to take her back, I am telling you to take her back.”

No doubt such an example strikes fear in all our liberal hearts, yet I think it reveals the presupposition behind all our attempts to set aside the demands of the Sermon on the Mount. After all, the PBS series presented this pastor and his community as curiosities— so odd and extreme in their obedience to Christ as to be irrelevant in the modern world. I take that fear to be behind all our attempts to set aside the demands of Christ’s Sermon. We fear taking Christ at his word because we fear by doing so we will have no relevance to the “real world.” If we actually follow Jesus, living in a manner that exemplifies his Sermon on the Mount, we fear will get trampled by the world or be irrelevant to it, unable to change the world for the good. 

Yet this is the great irony of Christ’s Sermon, for in the Sermon, Jesus teaches us a different way of making a difference. Jesus is teaching us the way the Church is to make a difference in the world, not the way the Powers and Principalities make a difference. 

It’s not the way the mighty make a difference. 

It’s not the way the wealthy make a difference. 

But it is the way of the Kingdom Christ has brought near. 

The Christians in the days of Julian the Apostate never set out to transform the world. They were in no position to change the world. They were never more than rabble. They weren’t trying to make history come right. They were simply trying to lives that made no sense if the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount is not the Risen Lord. Thus, they cared for the poor. They comforted the needy. They welcomed the stranger. They freaking invented hospitals. And through their patient obedience to Jesus, pagans like Julian discovered the world had been transformed. 

As Karl Barth says of this part of the Sermon on the Mount, the difference the community of discipleship makes in the world is its difference from the world. 

 

Discipleship is about difference. 

It’s about being the difference Christ has made in the world. 

That’s all the word holy means— different. 

The Powers and Principalities— the same Powers which crucified Jesus— lure us into thinking that simply by being the kind of people Jesus calls us to be— chaste, truthful, peacemakers, lovers of enemies, seekers of justice and righteousness first and foremost— that this kind of people cannot make much of a difference in the world. 

At best, such a people are dangerous because they refuse to support the Powers. 

At worst, such a people are no better than parasites, living off the freedom, peace, and prosperity made possible— by others— through through power and wealth and the sword. This is why the early Church provoked such ferocious hostility. Rome rightly suspected Christians of being bad Romans. After all, Christians had limits other Romans did not possess. Christians refused to work for the common good of Rome by any means deemed necessary. And Christians maintained that their most important task in Rome was not to be Romans but to be the Church. 

This perspective especially provoked the ire of Celsus, a second century pagan philosopher, who took the followers of the crucified Galilean to be unbelievably arrogant. Christians reminded Celsus of maggots in a dunghill saying, “Look at us! Look at us! We know better. We know more than you. God has revealed all things to us!” 

Stanley Hauerwas tells the story of a high school guidance counselor in Chapel Hill, North Carolina who, in the early ‘90’s caused a stir in the community for attempting to persuade students, especially those interested in the armed forces, from pursuing a position where they might find themselves in the situation where they would be required to kill. In reprimanding him, public school officials told the guidance counselor that he must be objective in how he engaged his students and their interests. 

The guidance counselor responded by saying, “I am being objective. I don’t know how I could be more objective. After all, the one who preached the Sermon on the Mount is Lord of all— that’s not my personal opinion; how could that possibly be a personal opinion?”

That’s not what the world sounds like. 

That’s what the salt of the world sounds like. 

Never forget— not all who gathered on the mountain to listen to Christ’s Sermon were his disciples. Discipleship requires boldness, for it requires boldness to be the salt that Christ is pouring onto the wounds of a broken world. The world is not much interested in the salt of the earth, Helen Woodson observed to the Washington Post reporter; the trouble is, the followers of Jesus are more often interested in resembling the world than being the salt that saves it. 

The world is a broken place. 

And hardly anyone wants salt poured in their wounds. 

Kimberlee Medicine Horn Jackson is a poet and professor of English at Kent State University. She’s about my age. She was born into the Yankton Sioux Tribe in  South Dakota. When she was young, during a period of difficulty in her family on the reservation, Kimberlee’s mother sought help from the local foster care services. Her mother thought she was entrusting her daughter to a short-term respite care program. Kimberlee Medicine Horn was instead taken across the border and given to a white Catholic family in Canada where she was raised. 

A little over three years ago, she spoke at a church— an ordinary, unremarkable church, in the region where such indigenous assimilation practices had been committed by both Canada and America. The community listened to her testimony. No one flinched from her pouring salt on their wounds. They all received her story and repented of the sin in which they were all, actively or passively, complicit. 

And at the end of her testimony, she reminded them that the love of God, revealed to us fully in Jesus Christ, is patient and kind. Therefore, she said, your sins are forgiven. And they said back to her, your sins are forgiven. 

It was just an ordinary church. It was no more than an ordinary practice like confession and absolution. But it’s exactly how we maintain our saltiness so that we might be for the world an alternative to the world.

Hear the good news:

Christ begins his Sermon on the Mount by declaring that his first disciples, no more impressive than, say, you all, are the salt of the earth. He does not preach that they ought to be the salt of the earth or that they should be the salt of the earth or that possibly, one day— if they but try hard enough, they will become the salt of the earth. 

He simply announces that they are the salt of the earth solely by virtue of him having called them to follow. 

 

Which means— the good news— you don’t have to be anyone other than who are you in this moment, someone— a sinner— called by Jesus Christ. 

What’s stopping you?

The preacher for the Sermon is Lord. 

Death has been defeated; Sin has been overcome.

Your life is already hid with Christ in God.

All time is the time Christ has gifted us to bear witness to his Kingdom.

So why not be bold rather bland? 

It’s funny. 

Ever since Jesus preached his Sermon, people like me have attempted to protect people like you from his Sermon out of concern that, if you followed the Sermon, you’d be ground up by the world— walked over, stomped on, thrown out, cast out as fools. 

But there’s the other irony. 

Jesus says it’s those who fail to be what he’s already made them— salt—  who will be trodden underfoot.

So come to the table. 

And through word and wine and bread, be consumed by what you consume; so that, you might become what you already are.  

‘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.

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