The Power of Salt
February 5, 2017
Text: Matthew 5:1-20
I don't know whether to think of it as the Women's March of its day, or the Million Man March, or the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice, but there was some reason – some longing – that drove the multitudes under Roman occupation to be together on the hillside. At this gathering, Jesus was the keynote speaker.
Of the many, Jesus named and blessed a particular subset. He named and blessed the poor in spirit. We can each only guess what he meant by that phrase, but to my thinking he was naming those who—under occupation—were depleted, exhausted, and without the inner resources for the demands of the day. Do you know anyone like that today, who would gather with the masses for strength? Then Jesus names those who mourn. I've always thought of that identifier in a general way—anyone who is experiencing grief—but I am now thinking he may have been speaking specifically to those whose grief was tied to political oppression; someone, perhaps who has lost a loved one to police brutality, or lost a spouse to war, or had to give up a child to protective services. Jesus continues, naming the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers in his descriptive blessing.
In some ways I can see myself as part of the group Jesus is naming, but as he advances through the blessings, it becomes clear that I am not part of the group to which the Beatitudes point. I have not been persecuted in any vivid kind of way. I have not been reviled. Yes, I have sought to identify with the poor, and yes, my ego has been bruised along the way, but I have never willingly been spat upon at the lunch counter. That is who Jesus is naming: those who are so powerless to exploitation that they have had to find an alternative form of resistance—one that puts them in harm’s way—and who rejoice even as they suffer for a cause greater than their own self-interest. Let’s be honest: I have not suffered for the Good News; nor am I at all certain that I would rejoice should that suffering come.
Over the past months, much has been said about the liberal elite. As I am using it, “liberal elite” is a political term for left-leaning, educated, affluent people who advocate for the poor, but are out of touch with the realities the poor suffer. Because we think we are closer to the poor than we actually are, and because we presume to know what is best for others, the term implies condescension, arrogance and self-righteousness. The liberal elite is not synonymous with liberal mainline American Christianity, but as Christians collapse our spiritual approach to politics with the world’s approach to politics, the two are increasingly indiscernible, one from the other.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus speaks of those who have gone through hell and dealt with politically-fueled persecution on a personal level. They have hit political rock bottom, and are poised for something new and different. In their desperation, they have given up eye-for-an-eye politics and the us-versus-them distinctions that sustain political stalemate. The Beatitudes lift up those who have traded in hubris for political creativity and hope.
Unlike the liberal elite posture, there is a presence particular to those whom Jesus names; those who are at rock bottom. It is a presence of humility. It is a recognition of how small we are. It is a willingness to listen, to learn as if survival depends on it. Its presence opens up the world. That presence is salt, Jesus says. As much as one would want to get out of a powerless, rock bottom position and trade it in for knowing and doing and fixing, Jesus admonishes the salt to remain salty. Stay in your powerlessness; receive it as a gift. Do not lose that salt.
Not only is there a particular presence of those at rock bottom, but there is also a particular power at that point. Jesus calls the presence “salt.” He calls the power “light.” When rock-bottom presence takes the form of rock bottom power, miracles happen: Children joyfully fill the jails of Birmingham. Mandela leads a people from Robben Island. Enemies become friends. Hearts are made new. This is different kind of exhilarating power than the exhilarating power of wearing hats, carrying clever signs and posting selfies (not that there’s anything wrong with that). There is no question that worldly political power can be fun to exert and sometimes, in its own way, effective. But should you have that rock bottom power, put it on a lamp stand. It is potent. Let it shine.
Under the oppressive circumstances of his day, Jesus blesses humble, persecuted, rock-bottom people as salt and light Maybe a time will come when some/any/all of us will, by grace, become a rock-bottom person/people, eager to suffer for the Kingdom with joy—maybe not. That is mystery; the stuff of the Spirit. One can’t accelerate or actualize that transformation for oneself, but we can pray for its coming. In the meantime, though, I want to sit at the feet of politically rock-bottom people. I want to learn from them. I want to be under their political-spiritual direction.
The Good News is that the saltiness that many of us do not have, the light many of us do not bear, are not only born by rock-bottom people but, more to the point, are born by Jesus for our sake. Jesus bears rock-bottom presence and he remains salt, even while praying that the cup be taken from him. Jesus exercises rock-bottom power and he exudes light, forgiving those who know not what they do. He does not take a single thing from us in our pride—not a single letter of the law—but as Salt and as Light, Jesus not only upends the hubris of Rome, but he undoes even the smartest of us who think we can defeat Rome on Roman terms; who think that the dualistic worldview which has brought us to this point in human history could possibly save us.
The Salt/Light strategy Jesus teaches is precisely the strategy he uses. With grace, Jesus uses the Salt/Light strategy to full effect, even on us, and even as we remain clueless to its power.
Jesus comes not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. He does not throw the law in our face with arrogance or condescension, but embodies the fullness of the law and the justice of the prophets in order to win our hearts. Jesus does not stand his ground in a power struggle against or over us—whether hard core conservatives or liberal elites—but he hits the rock bottom of powerlessness for our sake, and then keeps on humbling himself deeper down; finally surprising us from underneath, unearthing the moral high ground in which our intractable heels are planted.