“You are the salt of the earth," Jesus tells his listeners. "But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Matthew 5:13 NIV).
Forgive my blasphemous critique of Jesus’ rhetoric here, but to me this makes little sense. Bear with me.
First off, it doesn’t work as a metaphor. As I often have to explain to my students, metaphors are made of two parts: the tenor (the thing we’re talking about) and the vehicle (the comparison that is supposed to help us see or understand the tenor better). For an effective metaphor, both sides have to work. Here, the tenor is “you” and the vehicle “salt of the earth.” All is good.
However, if the metaphor develops beyond the simplest x = y comparison, both sides need to keep on working. In the next stage of the metaphor, the salt of the earth becomes salt that has lost its saltiness—an impossibility except hypothetically, because, as far as I know from my extensive experience as a cook and as a frugal saver of even the oldest condiments, the only way salt can lose its flavor is if it stops being salt. The entire substance of salt—which means everything that makes its salty taste—is NaCl. (Which is what, by the way, the weirdos in my family refer to it as, pronouncing it "nackle," as in, "Pass the nackle.")
Anyway, as usual, I read around about the verse and found, also as usual, all sorts of science-defying rationalizations about the salt of Jesus’ time and region, how it could in fact lose its saltiness, and so on. Sorry. I’m not buying it. Salt is salt. And, indeed, the sheer zeal of biblical experts to say it's not evidences, to me, the insolubility (pardon that pun!) at the core of this metaphor, which is, in effect, saying, “You are salt, but if salt stops being salt, then it won’t be salty anymore and is thus worthless.”
Then I got to thinking about salt. About how, as Michael Moss, author of Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, was saying in an interview on NPR the other day that there are “as many as 40 types of salt that are manipulated, created, sort of reformed and shaped in order to maximize the allure—or what they call in the salt world the flavor burst.” Salt’s shape, in other words, can intensify or reduce its saltiness. That helped a bit, giving me the idea of dissolved salt being useless—in which case, however, it’s not really trample-able. So that was a dead end.
“Um,” I would ask if a student had written this passage of Jesus’ sermon, “what happened to your tenor? If I’m salt, what am I in this hypothetical instance of not being salt anymore? What does that even mean? It’s nonsense at best. At worst, a tautology.”
“That’s just it,” I can imagine that student arguing in the metaphor-maker’s defense, surrounded as I am by the once-saved-always-saved. “It’s an argument for the eternal security of the believer! Jesus was telling those people that believers can’t stop being salt.”
“I never would have gotten there without that explanation” would be my answer. And, as obtuse as Jesus often is, I always struggle to believe he was intentionally setting out to buffalo his listeners and me. Certainly he doesn’t seem to be in this sermon, anyway, in which he clearly sets out to teach the fundamentals of faith.
Trusting Jesus to at least mean to make sense, my next attempt to solve the riddle was to look at alternative translations. Most English translations said about the same thing: if salt loses its saltiness or taste or savor…. (Luther’s early German translation says if salt becomes dumm, as in deaf and dumb, but I don’t have time to research whether dumm had some other use back then or was, God forbid, a mixed metaphor to boot.)
There was one translation that, I thought, sought to make the whole thing work, and that was good old Wycliffe’s of 1382.
“Ye be salt of the earth; that if the salt vanish away, wherein shall it be salted?” he wrote (employing what could be understood as unclear pronoun reference implicit in the passive construction “be salted”). “To nothing it is worth over, but that it be cast out, and be defouled of men.”
If the salt vanishes—by dissolving, for example—in other words, how’s anything going be salted? The “it” might, as Wycliffe suggests, refer to whatever’s being salted, and not to the salt itself.
That’s as far as I have the energy to consider this salt business tonight. Maybe I’ll get enlightenment overnight.