I am often asked by devout parishioners why it is that many of their loved ones have so little interest in matters of faith. The most correct answer is, of course, I don’t know; but a possible explanation has to do with the nature of salt.
Jesus says in Matthew 5 that his disciples are the salt of the earth. Then Jesus asks a question: if salt loses its saltiness, how will it be made salty? [the ‘again’ in many English translations is not in any Greek manuscripts]. Most English translations assume that the ‘it’ in the second clause is referring to the unsalty salt. This makes sense in English because ‘it’ appears in both clauses. In Greek, Jesus’ question reads more like this: If the salt becomes insipid (literally, foolish), how will it be salted? Reading the sentence this way, the possibility becomes clear that Jesus may be speaking of the earth–how will the earth be salted?–rather than how will the insipid salt be salted (again), although that too is a possible reading.
However, since Jesus’ salt metaphor is immediately followed by a light metaphor that focuses on the effect of the light on others (the light is seen, it enlightens), I think it is safe to say that in the salt metaphor, Jesus was focusing on the effect the salt has on others, on the earth: “you are the salt of the earth.”
In my previous post, I wrote that I used to think that to be elect was synonymous with to be saved. I used to see salvation as an individual matter. You were either in or out, saved or damned, missionary or mission field. However, I have come to see that salvation is much more nuanced. It is more like a body (to use one of St. Paul’s favourite images). Some parts are strong, some are weak; some parts are public, some are hidden; but no part is unnecessary, and what any part does affects the whole.
To go back to the image of salt, perhaps what Jesus is saying in Matthew 5 is that the earth is like a pot of soup. Jesus says to his disciples that they are like salt to that soup; but, He asks, if salt loses its saltiness (becomes insipid or foolish), how will the soup (the earth) be salted?
Salt is very salty. It takes very little salt to bring out the best flavours in a pot of soup. Perhaps Jesus’ point here has to do with the whole and not just the part. Perhaps His point is not that the salt has to stay salty for its own sake, for its own salvation. Perhaps what Jesus is saying is that His disciples, like salt, exist not for their own sake, but to bring out the flavour of the soup of the earth, to shine in the darkness.
Just about every devout person I know has loved ones who don’t seem to get religion, who don’t seem to feel or see the importance of spiritual things. Perhaps that is the way it is supposed to be. Perhaps those of us who are devout and serious about spiritual things need merely to be the salt in the soup and stop worrying that the carrots are not as salty as we are. They will become salty enough just by marinating with us in the soup of life. A little salt is all it takes to bring out their flavour, for them to be their best selves, who God made them to be. Maybe if we salty ones are just ourselves, God will see to it that the others get just the right amount of saltiness that they need.
Of course, just being our salty selves is not so easy. Jesus outlines in the Beatitudes that precede the salt metaphor that misunderstanding, false accusation, mourning, hunger, thirst, poverty, and persecution are indeed the evidence, the blessing, that we are doing what we are supposed to be doing, being salt in a world of carrots, potatoes and beets.
Thinking about things this way gives me peace and purpose. My spiritual life is not for me alone. I am salt in the soup. My prayers, my sufferings, my tears, my struggles–these are not for my individual salvation. These are the salt of the soup. These are for the salvation of the world, for the carrots, potatoes and beets, for my friends and enemies, my loved ones and my not-so-loved ones.
I am not a universalist, at least not in the sense that I think God is bound by some logical, legal or moral imperative to save everyone, nor do I think that any human being ever loses freedom so that he or she is forced to be saved. However, I do think that atomized concepts of salvation, as if God were picking red buttons from blue buttons, are even further off the mark.
I don’t think there is a line one must cross in this life in order to be saved. Salt permeates the whole soup–even if there may be some small bits that refuse to soften and absorb the brine (perhaps that’s what the image of heat in the afterlife is all about–softening up the hard bits). In as much as some of us seem to be salt and light and in as much as we manifest the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives, our loved ones are being saved. They are soaking in the same soup we are, in the same world. Salvation may not be immediately manifest. Who knows but God how long the soup needs to simmer? Who knows but God what will soften the tough bits (both in ourselves and in our neighbours)?