Reading: Luke 14:34-35; Matthew 5:13; Mark 9:50
34"Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? 35It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out. "Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear." (Luke 14:34-35)
A couple Sundays ago I was teaching through Luke 14. (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – Are You?) I presented the end of that chapter as an application for Jesus' disciples of what the whole chapter had been about. I won't repreach the whole chapter here, but merely pick up in Luke 14:25-27. In the context of the whole chapter, I loosely paraphrased those verses as:
Large crowds are traveling with Jesus, so he turns to them and asks, “Do you want to be healed from your dropsy—your greed, self-interest, love of the praise of men? Or, are you just along for the ride?
Following Jesus Will Cost You
Luke 14 is about Jesus freeing us from our craving for others to think good of us. He does this by taking hold of our lives and calling us to His banquet. A banquet of misfits, if you will. But there is a price to pay in order to be healed of our dropsy! When you accept Jesus' invitation to His banquet, it may be your last invitation. It is as if you hate your close family (these are the ones that were on your own invite list in Luke 14:12) but now that you associate with “those people” you will often be rejected. But so was Jesus.
The cross you bear will be bearing the shame that is often heaped on the little ones you are now associating with. In the case of the early church, disciples were often rejected by their Jewish relatives. In our culture today, to be associated with Christians is increasingly going to cost us. I've never seen an episode of Duck Dynasty, and honestly have no idea what it is really about, but recent events in pop-culture show how one might go from the top of the dung heap to the bottom when we do not play by the social rules of the world around us.
After speaking about the cost of being a disciple, Jesus tells two brief parables warning us not to start following Him if we aren't going to finish. In the tower parable (Luke 14:28-29) the point is: Make sure you finish what you start or you will face ridicule. In the war parable (Luke 14:30-32) the point is similar: You better be able to finish or you will be in a precarious situation.
Both of these little parables lead to the punch line (Luke 14:33) which I paraphrase as follows:
If you are going to start as my disciple, you'd better be willing to say good-bye to everything you have (respect, esteem, possessions), or you won't make it.
This is what precedes the “salt is good...” comment by Jesus in Luke 14:34-35. These verses are not easy to understand. During my Christian life I have heard or read a variety of explanations of this that have remained unsatisfying to me. In the context of Luke 14, the meaning may be clearer.
Salt and Relationships
First, in classical Greek to have eaten a bushel of salt together, meant to be old friends, or to be bound by ties of hospitality.1 Said another way, to eat salt with one is to partake of his hospitality, to derive subsistence from him; and hence he who did so was bound to look after his host's interests.2 Salt symbolized loyalty and friendship.3
“If the salt loses its saltiness,” in the context of Luke 14 (with the host of the wedding banquet being shunned by all his invitees), then could stand as a warning that when you follow Jesus and begin to associate with His guests, you will loose your saltiness (ties of hospitality) to your former friends. You will lose any commitment they had to your well-being.
“It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out,” means that those same friends would have no more use for you. Therefore, the warning is similar to the previous parables: if you change your mind later because discipleship is too hard, your old friends (in this case the upstanding-rule-following-Jews) aren't going to suddenly like you again. They will be concerned for what you might cost them.4
If this understanding of the salt parable is right, it stands as another warning to make sure you count the cost. Figuring out later that you can't finish will leave you not only without the new community of Christ, you will also have lost your old self-serving relationships as well. Then what will you do?
Salt and Being Trampled Underfoot
This understanding of the parabolic use of salt also fits well in Matthew's Gospel where similar language is used.
10Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. 13"You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
In the context of persecution, Jesus says it differently here than in the context of Luke 14. The last phrase reads, “except to be thrown out and trampled by underfoot.” Sounds like persecution to me. It could be read, “You are the salt of the land/soil. (The word there can be "earth" or "ground" or "land".) If Jesus meant ground there rather than how we usually read it (world/earth), that would change the sense. For more on that, see footnote 4 above.
Once again this verse could be referencing how the world will treat us when we become a follower of Jesus. To them we will lose our saltiness, the savoriness in our relationship, and they will trample us underfoot (persecution).
Have Salt Among Yourselves
The Gospel of Mark's use of salt adds an interesting twist.
If this means the same as I propose in both Luke and Matthew, Jesus speaks of our losing the saltiness to the world (ties of hospitality, loyalty in friendship), but then says we are to “have salt in or among yourselves”. In following Christ, we will indeed be rejected by many, but we are “to be bound by ties of hospitality” to each other. We are called to embrace the other guests at Jesus banquet (the church) as our family and friends. Have salt in yourselves (the church) and be at peace with one another.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,
1New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology.
2Easton's Bible Dictionary
3International Standard Encyclopedia
4As to how salt was ever fit for the soil or the dung heap vs. unfit for it, David Garland notes: The text does not say that it is unfit to be used on food, but unfit for the earth or the dung heap. Malina claims that Jesus develops the point from the concrete picture of the outdoor Palestinian earth-oven or kiln, called earth (see Ps 12:6; Job 28:5). Fire in such an earth-oven was produced by burning dung. To make the dried dung burn, the bottom of the kiln was faced with plates of salt, and the dung itself was sprinkled with salt. The salt served as a chemical agent that helped the dung to burn. However, over time, the heat of the oven would cause the salt plates to undergo a chemical reaction which made the salt plates impede and stifle the burning of the dung. It is when the salt crystals chemically change that they must be thrown out — the salt has lost its saltiness. [Garland, David E.; Clinton E. Arnold (2012-01-03). Luke (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) (Kindle Locations 15111-15116). Garland references Malina, The New Testament World, 119.]