Of dung and salt and being a catalyst for the kingdom

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany February 6 2011 St. Paul's, Bellingham

“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 and out trampled underfoot.”

I've often wondered about one aspect of this passage. How does salt become not salty? I suspect it is when it becomes wet and the saltiness leaches out.

I read about another possibility recently.

For some years scholars have been studying the Bible in its cultural environment. What they publish is of interest to people like me. It is of interest today, because it is a possible answer to my question.

Scholars Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh in their “Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels” call attention to an obscure passage from the Book of Job which reads:

“As for the earth, out of it comes bread....”Job 28:5a

What does this mean?

If you've been to a pizza place recently – the kind that offers hearth-fire pizza – you have a clue.

Cultures all across the world bake in clay ovens. This was true in the Middle East in Jesus' day, and long before his day.

The ideal house of the day, they say, would have a courtyard in the middle of it that contained an earthen oven with two stoves, a millstone for grinding grain, and a dung pile. Milling about would be chickens and cattle. The dung was used for fuel, as it is in many places even today.

Here's where the salt comes in. Someone from the house had a chore, and that would be to take the dung, mix it with salt, and lay the patties in the sun to dry in order to be ready as fuel.

A slab of salt would be placed at the base of the oven, and the dung patties placed over it. The salt served as a catalyst for burning.

When the slab of salt at the base of the fire had been spent of its catalytic qualities, it would be taken out and thrown out, perhaps to be thrown on a muddy road to make the footing more sure.

So there you have it. Jesus is making clear to his disciples that he expects them to become like salt mixed in a dung patty!

You don't like the analogy?

Well, think of it this way. He's simply saying that he expects his followers to have catalytic properties. He's expecting us to be the salt of the earth to keep burning the fires of the kingdom of God; fires which produce good things to nourish the peoples of the earth.

Here's another one for you.

Douglas Hare in his commentary on Matthew suggests another way to understand “You are the salt of the earth”. He suggests “you are red hot pepper for the whole earth!”, or “You must add zest to the life of the world.”

Jesus is expecting us to make a difference, as he did.

He's expecting us to be a catalyst, to help start something. Jesus is expecting us to bring a zest for life to the earth, as pepper livens up your breakfast scrambled eggs or hot sauce livens up just about any dish.

In Matthew's Gospel, this message is given to his disciples, to whom he specifically extended a call to join him in his work of being a catalyst for the kingdom of God. It is also extended to those in the crowds who hear his message because they hear him and see him are persuaded to follow him.

This latter group includes us.

To the disciples and to us, and to all the world God in Jesus Christ extends the blessings of forgiveness and divine love, calling us to follow Jesus into the kingdom of God.

Because God has blessed us with forgiveness and favor, we have a relationship with God and other human beings which is given us, and it is a relationship as members of one family

Because in the person of Jesus all the goodness and righteousness of God was fulfilled, we have the capacity to live in righteousness ourselves.

And this means being salt and light in the world. It means living in relationship with Jesus, who is in relationship with our enemies, and those we tend to despise and look down upon. A relationship with Jesus means a new outlook on the world. It means upholding the commandments of God.

It means seeing the world as God sees it, in hope.

We live in a world with so much hatred and suspicion. When these things exist, there can be no zest in life, no fire of warmth and hospitality.

I've noted over the last decade since we were attacked by extremists of the Muslim faith that it is very commonplace in our culture to hear and see expressions of prejudice and fear against all Muslims.

This came home in a painful way for me when last week I got an e-mail from a close relative containing a piece of writing purportedly from Europe which - in the course of lamenting what was done to the Jews in Europe – contained a broad-brush condemnation of the Muslim population of Europe. The things said in that e-mail about Muslims as a group were eerily similar to the kinds of things said about Jews as a group in Europe sixty to seventy years ago. It was disheartening and sad to me to know that because of the evil done by dangerous and violent Muslim extremists that hatred against all Muslims is being fanned in this way. Where hatred is fanned, violence is not far behind. I quickly found in an internet search that this message was being spread by extremist groups across the English-speaking world.

There's no zest in that. Nothing catalytic for the kingdom of God. Nothing to give hope to the world.

On the other hand, there was the correspondence from a young Egyptian blogger showing a photo of Egyptian Christian young people forming a ring of protection around Muslims at prayer during the current protests in Cairo.i

That's zesty. That's being a catalyst for something good.

Jesus is telling us, as did Isaiah the prophet in today's first reading, that righteousness involves a lot more than following religious rules. It isn't enough just to say the right words in church. God is looking for transformed lives, and through us a transformed world.

We're to be salt in the dung of the world, so that the fire of God's love might burn. We're to be red hot pepper for the world, zest for a world looking for signs of life.

During a trying time in Europe a great Archbishop of Canterbury uttered a statement that is memorable for us as the church.

“The church,” said William Temple, “is the only organization on earth that exists for those who are not its members.”

I pray we come together to a deeper understanding of this. I pray we stand in such certainty about the love of God for us and for all others, and such humility, that we can be salt and light, a blessing to the world, loving our neighbor as ourselves.

Photo: Earthen oven outside Tiwa Kitchen Taos Pueblo Home Cooking on the road outside Taos Pueblo.