Have salt within yourselves and be at peace with one another.
–Jesus (Mark 9:50)
Salted with Fire
The chapters in the second half of Mark’s Gospel follow Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem with a bunch of his followers, and he’s been giving them some really harsh messages about the cost of discipleship. His line about the salt comes right after he has given the speech about tearing out your own eye if it causes you to stumble, for “it is better to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.”
Then he says, “For everyone will be salted with fire.” Yikes. That doesn’t sound pleasant: being salted with fire. Since Jesus has been talking about temptation and sin, it’s a good bet that he means our experiences of circumstances that test us or challenge us are the very experiences that build our character. In other words: trial by fire is what seasons us. From those experiences of stumbling we gain wisdom and perspective.
Salt is good, Jesus tells them, but if it’s lost its saltiness, it’s no good anymore. Therefore we need to have salt within ourselves. We can’t be looking to outside sources to season us. We have to have our own flavor.
Salt and Peace
So we’re salted by fire, and it’s good for us to go through these difficult experiences. So far, so good. But it’s the last line that Jesus tacks on that really intrigues me: “Be at peace with one another.”
I do a bit of a double-take every time I read this verse. After this long speech about fire and brimstone and getting thrown into hell and tearing out your own eyes and being salted with fire, Jesus closes his speech by saying, “Have salt within yourselves and be at peace with one another.”
What is the connection between salt and peace? What does being salted have to do with being at peace with others?
To understand the symbolism of salt, it helps to understand the important role that salt played in first century culture: as a seasoning, as a preservative, and as a purifier.
1. Salt seasons
In the first century, salt was used for the same reason it is today: flavor. Salt doesn’t just add flavor to food, it actually brings out the other flavors present in food – it’s a flavor enhancer.
Jesus uses the metaphor of salt multiple times in reference to its flavor.
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 underfoot.
The question for disciples of Jesus is: how do we maintain our own flavor? How do we ensure that our seasoning doesn’t lose its potency, that we have, as Jesus said, salt in ourselves?
Our spiritual lives aren’t something we can neglect. We can’t just hope they’ll be healthy and growing. We have to cultivate dynamic faith lives. It takes effort! We do this in lots of ways – through prayer, spiritual practices, accountability, community, worship, study of scripture. We need to tend to our faith regularly, to weave it into our everyday lives, to talk about it with people who care about us, to challenge ourselves to keep learning. That’s how we make sure we don’t lose the unique flavor we have because of our faith.
And those trials by fire that Jesus was talking about? When we face challenging situations, those are what refine and build our character – but only if we are able to handle them with perseverance and hope. If we can have an attitude of openness, a willingness to learn from life’s circumstances, then anything that comes our way will just be more seasoning.
2. Salt preserves
Salt also preserves.
In Jesus’ time, salt was the food preservative of choice. In Leviticus (2:13) and Ezekiel (43:24), God commands his people to bring salt with every offering. One possible explanation for this is to keep raw meat from rotting. However, it’s interesting that scripture also commands the Israelites to bring salt with their grain offering. Since salt wouldn’t be required to preserve grain, we can guess at a deeper reason for the salted offerings.
One possible explanation is symbolic. Because of its powers as a preservative, salt symbolized permanence. It was used to seal treaties in the ancient near east. In the Old Testament, we find multiple references to “covenants of salt.” This may be part of the offerings, too. Salt is a sign of commitment, intention, longevity. When something is salted, it is going to last a while – both literally and symbolically.
When Jesus tells his followers to have salt within themselves, I also think of this preservative aspect of salt. Being a person of faith isn’t a quick fix or a temporary confession: it requires long-term commitment and strength. It requires preservation.
Just like the seasoning, you can’t look for this kind of preservative strength outside of yourself. It’s something that comes from within. When we face those situations that “salt us with fire,” we gain not only seasoning and character, but strength and perseverance.
3. Salt purifies
As it is today, salt was used in the ancient world as a powerful tool to ward against evil. Hebrew women would rub their babies with salt at birth as a sign of protection (Ezek. 16:4). In 2 Kings 2, we read the story of the Israelites living in Jericho. They complain to the prophet Elisha that the water is bad and is contaminating the land and the people. Elisha responds by throwing salt into the spring to purify the water (2 Kings 2:19-21).
This use of salt – as a purifying ward against evil – isn’t difficult to apply to our spiritual life. We all know that focusing on the wrong things can easily “contaminate” us. It is easy to become distracted and caught up in things that aren’t good for us – jealousy, resentment, blame, fear, gossip. These things become habit, and then they are part of us. They pollute us. As Joan Chittister writes: “What I put into my soul will shape me.” (Breath of the Soul, 14).
What if we took time to bring purity into our spiritual lives, to cleanse ourselves from these icky things that contaminate our peace of heart? Maybe this comes in the form of journaling, talking with an accountability partner, meditating, or practicing forgiveness. Maybe re-focusing on what we love and what makes us come alive is part of a daily ritual, or a weekly ritual. Maybe we can think about being purified every time we confess in church, every time we come to the altar for communion, every time we pass the peace to the congregation.
Sometimes we need to be conscious of what is captivating our attention and energy, and make sure that those are the things we really desire to be investing in.
So we looked at three uses of salt: as a seasoning, as a preservative, and as a purifier.
We can read Jesus’ statement “have salt within yourselves” to mean have unique flavor within yourselves and be seasoned, have perseverance within yourselves and be strong, have purity within yourselves and be focused on the right things.
There is, however, one more use of salt that comes to mind. Being salted is not always a good thing. We can also find salt as a symbol of destruction in scripture.
Think of Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt when she looks back on the city of Sodom, or the military practice of salting the earth, practiced by both the Israelites and their enemies. Once the earth was salted, nothing would grow in it again, causing desolation and starvation for the people who lived there. So salt also came to represent emptiness, barrenness – one of the worst curses imaginable in the ancient near east.
What this tell us is that salt is powerful. If used maliciously, salt can be dangerous and harmful. Food with too much salt doesn’t have enhanced flavor, it has overbearing flavor that makes us thirsty. It depends on how we use the salt.
I think this is the key connection between having salt within ourselves and being at peace with each other. The salt we have within us can be used one way – to season and strengthen us – or it can be used another way – to overpower and harm. That’s why its so important to be intentional about our faith lives, to be in constant communication with each other, to maintain open minds and hearts. We have within us great power to draw our community of faith together, but we can also do things that break it apart.
Questions for Reflection
- How does the image of salt help you understand discipleship differently?
- Which of the three uses of salt — seasoning, preservation, purification — seemed most significant to you? Are there any other uses you think should be added?
- How has “being salt” led to peace in your life or community? How has it led away from peace?
- Have you experienced the harmful destructiveness of “salt” within your faith community? What do you think it would take to heal that wound?