Salt a symbol of commitment, desolation

Published June 1, 2000

IT WAS SPRING, and I was walking along a path between a river and a busy road.

Spring was late; it had been cold and wet, but suddenly the sun was warm and strong.

The grass beside the river changed from brown to green in three days, but not beside the roadway.

As I observed this each day, I realized from other signs, such as the corroded curb, that the grass beside it was full of salt and that it might take ages to turn green, if it did at all.

This accords with my impressions generally of the results of our extravagant use of salt in winter. I see its effects on my trouser cuffs, our hall carpet, our front sidewalk, the highways, everywhere. I resent the money I pay for undercoating on my car.

I belong to a generation whose attitude to the internal use of salt has altered radically. I recall my mother’s generous use of salt in cooking and the subsequent generous addition of salt before the meal by all of us. That is not the way I cook.

With all of these contemporary examples before me, I began to reflect on what I hear in Jesus’ words to his disciples that they are “the salt of the earth.”

I live in a culture accustomed to refrigeration on a scale unknown as recently as my youth. Before our century salt was essential to prevent the deterioration of food in the heat.

That physical quality of salt passed over into symbolic relationships with other people. In many places to this day a genuine welcome is expressed in a gift of bread and salt, necessities of life and signs of unshakable allegiance. Salt became a sign of binding commitment and came into biblical language about “a covenant of salt.”

Its symbolism of allegiance reached into the relation of the people to God. Salt was needed in the temple to be added to sacrifices as a sign of their permanence. In the Hebrew tradition it was rubbed on a child at birth and in Christian tradition it has been added to water at baptism. Both signs reflect its symbolic preservation from evil.

On the other hand “saltness” in the Bible can be a symbol for barrenness or desolation. In the book of Judges we read of an incident where Abimelech, after the conquest of a city, and the slaughter of all its inhabitants, not only destroyed the place but also sowed the land with salt so that nothing would ever grow again.

So many religious symbols people use as signs of life also contain the prospect of death. Tobacco in North American indigenous culture and wine in Christian tradition are clear examples.

But amidst the complexity of this symbolism Jesus could use the image of salt as a challenge to us, just as he did with light.

I hear his word to us as a sign not simply that we are to add spice or taste to the life of the world, but that we are to be signs of God’s protection for all the creation, to be faithful to God’s covenant with us, and to be as permanent as God’s love.

But I could still do with less of it in the grass. Archbishop Michael Peers is Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.


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