Sunday, February 09, 2014

Salty Language (Matthew 5:13-20)

Obviously Jesus did not consult with health experts before delivering his message about salt, or else he would have known it was bad for us.

Or perhaps, given that in his culture there was no way of preserving food via refrigeration, he would have deemed eating spoiled meat more of a health hazard than sodium and just gone ahead with his analogy. My money's on the latter.

But the truth is that our culture has a variety of different understandings of salt than did the ancient Near East. Everything from the way it's used to the way it looks to the way it was processed to be ready for use is very little like what it was in Jesus' day.

There were two main methods of getting salt -- one was from a mine, where rock salt was dug from the earth like anything else valuable and underground. The other was from the shores of the Dead Sea, a body of water so salty that people don't sink in it. As the tide ebbed and flowed, pools of water would be left behind that would evaporate. When they did, the minerals found in the Dead Sea water remained, and those mineral clumps could be carefully washed to leave behind only the desired salt. The second method was the one by which most poorer people obtained salt, since they could just pick up the mineral clumps themselves if they were on the shore or buy them from those who had. Salt from mines was purer and more expensive, and very often beyond the reach of most people.

The only problem with washing the Dead Sea mineral clumps to get salt was that if the washing used too much water, the clump would turn into a sludgy mess and it would be impossible to separate the salt from the other elements. The sludge was useless and thrown out, which us what Jesus refers to. Each clump was different and the job a hard one.

So when Jesus told his followers they were the salt of the earth, he communicated several important ideas that we might miss. For one, in order for them to be salt they would have been carefully refined and prepared for use, "washed" by God until all the unwanted minerals were gone what remained was only the valuable and useful salt.

Many of us might think of baptism when we talk about this, but we should also remember that our refinement and purification by God is a lifelong process. Baptism is a symbol of it, but it goes on over and over again. We should also remember that we, unlike the salt, can stop or stall the process. When we do, we may lose our saltiness and reduce our value in God's work in the world. A Christian who is no different from the people around her in any way loses her ability to create change. A church that makes itself like the world around it, whether for good or poor reasons, will likewise lose its ability to have an impact on that world.

Broadly speaking, our roles in the world are not significantly different from the roles salt played in food preparation in Jesus' day. Salt gave flavor to food, because it tasted different from the food itself. Salt was a preservative that could slow or even arrest the process of decay. Salt that could do neither of these things was of no value; Christians that cannot be different from the world around them or show a better way of living that both follows God more closely and evokes the fullest measure of human life are in the same boat.

Which leads us to the last and probably most important difference. Just as Jesus said, salt that has lost its saltiness is of no value. It is thrown away. And when we lose our saltiness, we too are of little or no use in God's plan for the world. But we are not thrown away.

Instead, because of God's love for us and Jesus giving himself on the cross, we may find ourselves "re-salted," a chance the flavorless salt never had. In fact, if our purpose is to be the "salt of the earth," then it is just as plain that one of Jesus' purposes was to salinate us when we go bland.

And that indeed sounds like good news to me.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Blessed (Matthew 5:1-12)

In this passage, called the Beatitudes from a Latin word for "blessed," we see Jesus offer a pretty counter-cultural set of assumptions for his day, and for ours as well, even if to a slightly milder degree.

The Beatitudes are a passage sometimes used to debunk the idea that the gospels are reliable witnesses to what Jesus said and did. Because they are also in Luke, only over there they are altered a little bit. Matthew says Jesus calls "the poor in spirit" blessed, while in Luke it's simply "Blessed are the poor." Matthew also adds "for righteousness" to the blessing for those who are hungry, while in Luke Jesus blesses those "who hunger now."

Ah, some people say. See, obviously these gospels aren't reliable, since they disagree about important things Jesus said! Or, some others will suggest that the church we have today has drifted far away from the solidarity with the poor Jesus commanded, since even as early as Matthew's gospel that connection was being thinned out.

But to be honest, even though both gospels are either supposed to be direct eyewitness accounts (Matthew) or taken from those kinds of accounts (Luke), none of them were written by someone who took notes of everything Jesus said and did at the time in order to record it like a modern biography. They are based on what those men remembered years later and so they could vary. There's another possibility, and it's one that made me think about Jesus' message some more, so I present it here. It may be true or it may not; there's no way in this life of proving it one way or another. With that, here goes.

Perhaps Jesus said both of those versions of the Beatitudes, shaping his basic message for two different groups of people. Say Luke tells us about a time when Jesus spoke to a group of mostly poorer people (and Luke does suggest that the sermon containing the Beatitudes happened on a plain, while Matthew puts it on a mountain). Then his message of blessing to them was a welcome new idea. We may look down a little on poor people in our society, sometimes attributing more of their poverty to their own choices or laziness or whatever and overlooking situations that may cause it or make it worse. But we've got nothing on a culture that saw poverty as a punishment from God for wrongdoing.

Poor people, you see, must have sinned -- the same went for sick people, too -- and the proof that they had sinned was the poverty. This kind of circular logic falls apart when you look at it, but Jesus just went ahead and completely ignored it. The society said poverty was a sign of God's curse, but Jesus said that the poor were not cursed. In fact, they were blessed, and God cared just as much for them as for anyone! Hunger as well was no sign of God's curse. Those who were hungry were also blessed by God!

Now imagine with me a different group of people, most of whom were not so poor and who may even have been rich. Jesus speaks to them too. Would he tell them, "Blessed are the poor?" Of course he would teach them that God loves the poor just as much as the rich, and in fact expects the rich to use their wealth to help those in need. But the rich have a different need from the poor. They risk thinking too much of themselves because of their material blessings and believing that they have no need of God. So Jesus tells them, "Blessed are the poor in spirit" to remind them that they too need God's grace in their lives, just as surely as does the poor man down the road.

And he tells them, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness," because he wants them to hunger and thirst for righteousness not only within their own lives but for those who are in need. Righteousness for them involves helping them meet the needs and perhaps even using the power wealth grants in order to protect them from those who would take advantage.

Whether or not Jesus said this similar message, slightly tailored to reach a different audience each time, we have such a two-pronged message for us today thanks to the different wordings of Matthew and Luke. We can be reminded that we need to remember those who are materially poor and regard them not as unfortunate victims or lazy bums, but as our brothers and sisters, equal to us in every way in the sight of God. And we can be reminded that our call as those with resources is to use those resources on behalf of those in need. Instead of getting just one side of the story, today when we study the Bible we can get it in full stereo, knowing and hearing the complete message from God to those who would follow him.

And that is certainly a blessing indeed.