"Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear." Lk.14:34-35
Jesus had been speaking to the crowds that were accompanying him about the cost and conditions of discipleship. He had made it clear that he set the bar high. If a man or a woman was to be serious about following him a certain lifestyle had to be adopted because Jesus as Lord said so:
Jesus must be made priority N°1 in a believer’s life
Suffering is to be expected and accepted
Discipleship entails dangers
In the light of this Jesus urged would-be disciples to count the cost before engaging as one of his disciples. Were they ready to follow him where he led when such discipleship might well involve hardship and difficulty rather than comfort and ease?
Jesus summarised the terms and conditions of discipleship in v.33 where we hear him say:
"So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple."
When we consider those in the NT who were numbered amongst his disciples we do not however find a bunch of perfect people who never made any mistakes. What we do find is a company of people who are heading generally in the right direction, aspiring to the right things and making progress towards the final goal. They failed at times but their failures were blips rather than the regular tenor of their lives.
This tells us that we do not wait until we are perfect or that we think ourselves good enough to become his disciples. Following him will involve great changes in our lives as we embrace a whole new set of ideals by which to live. We will be contested along the way but we will keep on aspiring to meet those ideals and we will make progress towards them too.
Christian discipleship begins at a certain moment in time when we decide to follow the Saviour. Such a decision may follow a long period of careful thought and reflexion, a careful counting of the cost. When the decision is taken that doesn’t mark the end of the matter, it is just the beginning of a whole new way of life.
Have you come in faith to Jesus Christ? Are you his disciple? I hope so. Jesus has more to say to us concerning our life as his disciples and he does so by using another illustration drawn from the everyday life of his contemporaries – salt.
Salt in the Teaching of Jesus
Like any good teacher with good ideas, examples and illustrations Jesus reused his material from time to time in different settings. Sometimes an idea would be used in an identical way in different contexts but sometimes an illustration might be used in a slightly differently way in order to emphasise a slightly different aspect of the truth.
"Salt" is one of these illustrations that is used in a slightly different way here in Lk.14 than to the way it is used in the more well-known passage in Mt.5 – the Sermon on the Mount.
In both these cases Jesus is speaking to his followers about discipleship and in both cases the emphasis falls upon the quality of that discipleship as is shown by his highlighting the quality (or the lack of quality) of salt.
Let’s begin by looking at Jesus’ words in Mt.5:13
"You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet."
Now let me draw out the things that are important here – you have probably already seen them but let me highlight them:
The fundamental thing about salt is its saltiness
Such salt has value, it is good and can be used with benefit
Salt with no saltiness is no longer salt at all
Unsalty salt is good for nothing
Now Jesus told his followers that they were "the salt of the world". Their saltiness was good and of value and real benefit to the world. But what did he mean by this? What was the nature of their saltiness?
Well the Christian’s saltiness is directly related to the quality of his/her Christian life and that life he has just described in what we call the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are in reality a character description of what the Christian, as he follows his Master, is to be like. Living this way in the world, Jesus implies, has a beneficial effect upon the world just as salt has its own benefits to impart.
Salt in the kitchen and on the table is useful for at least two things:
Firstly, salt brings out the flavour of a dish and stops it being insipid. It is for this reason that salt has so often been added to the prepared foods we regularly buy in the supermarkets – the salt has been added because it serves to make the food more tasty and hence more desirable.
Secondly, salt stops or at least delays putrefaction from setting in. I know most of us have fridges and freezers today but it in the days before such things food would be salted as a means of preserving it. The method was used, and still is, with meat, fish and some vegetables.
If it were possible to imagine salt without its essential qualities of saltiness neither of these beneficial tasks will be possible.
If you as a disciple had none of the essential qualities of the Christian in your life then you too would be like unsalty salt – and good for nothing at all! Your life and witness would not have any influence on those around you, no holding back of the decay that is rampant in the world, no adding of spice to life. And yes, the Christian life is meant to do that – not in the way the world imagines of rash excitement and careless excessive behaviour, but of being close relationship with the most powerful, most creative, most exciting person ever – God himself in the Lord Jesus Christ!
Now we know that if salt stops being salty it has quite simply stopped being salt. The very idea of salt losing its saltiness and remaining salt is a nonsense and this may have been in Jesus’ mind as he taught. He may simply have meant to tell his followers that if they lives they lived didn’t radiate the qualities of the Christian life as he had described it then quite simply they couldn’t be considered to be disciples at all!
In other words it is not enough to be hearers of the word we must be doers of it too! And a tree is known by its fruits – no spiritual fruit = no Christian!
A challenging thought isn’t it?
But perhaps our thoughts are too dominated by the kind of salt that we have at home in our kitchens – the clean, pure and free-flowing table salt. That salt may sometimes absorb some moisture but it remains fundamentally salty.
The salt of Jesus’ day was not like that. The salt came in hard lumps and needed to be broken up sometimes with a hammer. That salt wasn’t particularly pure either containing a mixture of various other elements. The true salt crystals could leach away from some a mixture and while what was left behind still looked like the block of salt that had been there to start with it no longer contained any of that essential saltiness that distinguishes salt from other things. Such "salt" would maybe look alright but it was useless. All it was good for was throwing away. There was no way of making this salt valuable again.
If that were the picture in Jesus’ mind then the lesson for us is a little different. We need to take care that we don’t allow the truths of Christian doctrine and of Christian practice to slowly leach away out of our lives until there is nothing Christian left about us but an outward appearance that does nobody any good.
Do you still love the Lord Jesus? Do you still want to live for him? Do you still speak to him in prayer? Do you still repent of sin? Do you still grieve over remaining sin? And how do you compare with what you were like in the past? Backsliding is a possibility for any Christian who fails to keep watch over his soul. It is even possible for a whole church to abandon its first love for Christ as we learn from the letter Jesus sent to the church in Ephesus:
Rev.2:4-5 "But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent."
Well now having thought about the salt illustration in Matthew’s gospel now let’s turn to a very similar but slightly different illustration in Luke’s gospel:
Lk.14:34-35 "Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear."
The context as we have already seen is the same – Jesus has been talking about discipleship. Much of the information we are given here about salt is the same too – basically salt is good and can be used with profit.
Yet there is a difference and let me draw your attention to it. The use to which good salty salt can be put is here described not in relation to the kitchen or the table but to the earth and the dunghill.
Did you notice that Jesus said this time that unsalty salt was no use for either soil or for the manure heap? He was clearly implying that salty salt was good for both those purposes.
What are we to make of this and how are we to understand this?
Well our problem comes from the fact that we’re so used to the idea of the culinary use of salt that we tend to knee-jerk into that being the only proper interpretation ever. Well we need to think again.
I’ve already suggested that the salt available to Jesus and his contemporaries was nothing like our packets of free-flowing table salt. Dried salt from the Dead Sea was an impure mix of chemicals as was the available rock salt – this salt would have been a mix of sodium, magnesium and potassium along with very small amounts of gypsum. In the ancient world the Hebrews used such salt for agricultural purposes as did the Romans and the Chinese.
There were a number of reasons why salt might be used in agriculture:
It could be applied as a treatment for arid soil to make it more moisture retentive
It could help destroy weeds
It could render difficult soils easier to till
It could improve sour grass making it sweeter and hence more appealing to cattle.
When applied properly the addition of salt would chemically facilitate the release of minerals and soil nutrients enabling plants to feed upon them.
Applying a covering of soil to a manure heap prevented the manure from decomposing too quickly thus allowing it to be added to the soil at more appropriate times.
Thus the use of good salty salt served to improve the fruitfulness of the earth as crops could grow better on prepared and nutrient rich ground.
I wonder now if you can see what Jesus might have had in mind as he spoke to his disciples comparing them to salt. Christians have a greater mission to perform in the world than that of simply holding back decay – Christians are in the growth business because Jesus has promised that he will extend his church bringing new life to needy people.
Living consistent godly lives following the teaching of Jesus and keeping their eyes resolutely fixed upon him Christians are meant to be out there in the world improving the quality of the soil in which the seed of the gospel may take root and grow. Our lives are meant to help break up hard, unproductive fallow ground making it ready to receive the preached word concerning Jesus. We are meant to be involved in some of the messy lives and messy situations that surround us – manure heaps are not particularly attractive but can be transformed into something useful.
Once again however the same truth needs to be underscored: if this salt were to lose the essential qualities of its particular saltiness none of this beneficial agricultural work would be possible. The message is the same. We as Christians, if we are to be genuine Christian disciples at all, must possess the essential characteristics and qualities of the true Christian disciple and we must understand that discipleship is a life-long commitment.
How salty is my life? How salty is yours?
Can salt be made salty again? Naturally, no is the answer expected – but with Jesus we are not in the realms of what is naturally humanly possible. Just think about the example of Peter. How the saltiness leaked out of his life as he denied his Lord three times in the courtyard when challenged by a servant girl. But was that the end of Peter? By no means. He was restored by the loving gracious compassion of the resurrected Jesus.
We may have messed up and failed big-time but Peter’s story encourages us to look to Jesus for the grace and restoration we need.
As Jesus brought things to a close he challenged those who were listening to him:
"He who has ears to hear, let him hear."
You all have physical ears as I can tell but Jesus isn’t speaking about that he is speaking about your spiritual ears and your ability to hear spiritual truth.
Do you have any idea what Jesus has been talking about when he spoke about the life of a disciple is comparable to salt? If you haven’t understood a word of what I’ve been saying this morning it could be all my fault because as a preacher I have failed to do my job properly. But my friend there is another possibility for you to consider. It may well be that your spiritual ears are bunged up, so bunged up in fact that are not hearing spiritual truth at all and in grave danger of never hearing!
If that be the case for any of you this morning then pray to God to open your ears, to open your spiritual eyes too so that you may hear and see and understand these all important matters.
And for those of you who have heard and understood then the words "let him hear" are designed to encourage to put it into practice. What are you going to do about it? You are not to come and sermon taste Sunday by Sunday and then do nothing with what you hear.
May God ensure that we are all "salt of the earth"; spiritual salt that hasn’t lost its spiritual saltiness but which is good and useful and profitable in the service of Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour. May he fill us will his Holy Spirit so that we might ever be useful servants who will one day hear those lovely encouraging words "Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter in to the joy of your Lord."
To God be the Glory