(A dung-fired bread oven similar to those used in Biblical times, from Jenn Amur's blog "Turk'd")
Jesus said, "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 out and trampled under foot.
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."
This past Sunday's Gospel reading brings up something that is mostly lost on those of us in the Western world...namely what that salt is all about.
The area of the world we now know as the Middle East has never exactly been known for possessing a huge supply of trees or unlimited amounts of firewood. The clay ovens that were used for baking needed a higher BTU fuel than what could be produced based on the scrawny amounts of firewood available. As it turns out, the dung of grazing animals has a high content of compressed plant matter that can provide those BTU's. So one of the jobs of the family children was to collect the camel patties and donkey briquettes and flatten them out to dry.
Even then, this compressed fuel needed some help. Hence, a dish or patty or block of salt was placed at the base of the oven and the dung patties placed on top of the salt. The salt becomes a catalyst of sorts for the fire, allowing the dung to fire hotter and burn more completely. Over time, though, it loses its ability to catalyze the reaction and has to be replaced. The baked, worn out salt cakes were often handy for "home paving jobs" and would be strewn along commonly trod paths--"trampled under foot."
The word used for "earth" in this passage is γῆς--"ges"--from the Greek γῆ--"ge," as in "geology" or "geography." In Koine Greek, it can mean "earth," "land," "soil," or "world," depending on the context. Add to that an understanding that in Hebrew and Aramaic, it can imply the actual earthen ovens themselves--so there was probably some cross-cultural colloquialisms with the word in that region.
So this knowledge introduces a bit more ambiguity to this passage. Jesus saying, "You are the salt of the earth," could imply anything from "You are the salt of the world," to literally, "You are the salt of the hearth."
I sat and reflected a bit on the possibility that Jesus was saying it was our task to make the dung burn hotter. (No doubt, my Teutonic roots and my Lutheran upbringing, complete with that little Martin Luther that still sits on my shoulder, tends to lead me to ponder the scatological, given the fact the German language and Luther's writings are full of it.)
But really, that's not a bad thing in this case. The salt helps the dung fuel burn more completely and efficiently. It's not a crazy idea that, as followers of Christ, we are called to, in the most complete way possible, rid ourselves and the world of the "non-essentials." Perhaps we really are meant to turn chaff and fiber into fuel for bread!
Could it be that we, in a loving relationship with God and our neighbor, have the ability to feed others, despite the fact we seem surrounded by dung? Not just "feed" but feed in a real and sustaining way with one of our most beloved staples--good, rich, thick, hearty bread?
It also brings up the value of "salt."
We say that some people have "salty personalities" and that some of us are prone to "salty language." Some of us seem to fall a little more squarely in that category than others. I heard a different take on that when I attended a workshop last fall on "Contemplating the Eucharist." The presenter said something that was music to my ears, and would have never thought about in terms of "contemplation."
He said, "The more onery a person is, the more he or she manifests the true light of God."
Granted, we don't need to be pathological about it, but mostly, we need not fear our own saltiness. Instead, we need to trust that God knows how to bake bread just fine, and can use us as the catalyst for feeding our hungry, broken world. We need to consider the possibility that is precisely "our salt" that causes us to burn hotter in displaying the light of the world. What a concept!