I wanted to post this early this morning, but I didn't get a chance to, and now I'm glad. My friend and dialogue partner, Steve Pankey, posted this morning on the same topic, and now I have the benefit of using his post as a platform for my own comments. More than anything, though, I like it that he and I are thinking about the same sort of thing as Sunday approaches. As a preacher, that gives me hope.
I supposed that I agree with Steve on one point--that salt may not be able to lose its saltiness--but I want to take that a step further and say that it can lose its saltness.
Saltness? Saltiness? What's the difference you ask? I might be making an argument out of nothing, but stick with me for a minute.
Lately, I've been turning to the Greek with shocking regularity, and I'll do it again today. The Greek word for salt is "ἃλας," and the Greek word translated by the NRSV as "saltiness" in Sunday's gospel lesson is "ἁλισθήσεται." The latter is a form of the verb that at its root mean "to salt" or "to season with salt." In other words, it's the basic verb that goes with salt. The same would be said for things like jump ropes. What do you do with a jump rope? You jump rope. What do you do with salt? You salt something. The participle form of the verb "to salt" doesn't narrowly imply taste--though that's part of it. The Greek word that is translated as "lost its taste" does mean literally "has become insipid." But the word rendered as "saltiness" has means more than just flavor. It's even more basic than that. It means something broader like "having the quality of salt."
As frequently as I've toyed with the Greek, I've also been turning to other translations of the bible to help clarify things, and this is one of those weeks when it might help. Take a look at all these translations of the verse in question (Matthew 5:13). Several stick unhelpfully close to the literal translation, giving something equally confusing like "with what shall it be salted?" Others use the word "salty" in place of "saltiness," but still the cultural emphasis seems to be on taste. I'd rather use a culturally anachronistic word that jars the ear and begs the reader to see deeper into the word. I prefer the RSV's "saltness." It renders Matthew 5:13 thusly:
"You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men."
Why does it matter? Because of the context of the passage, which is echoed in the "let your light so shine..." in the succeeding verses.
Salt might not be able to lose its salty flavor, but it can become so contaminated by other things that it can no longer be used for food. (I'm pulling from the International Critical Commentary by Davies and Allison to make this point.) Bad salt--impure salt--adulterated salt--is good for nothing except throwing on the streets during an icy winter or sprinkling over ice when you're making homemade ice cream. In other words, table salt (NaCal) becomes no better than rock salt (a mixture of several ionic compounds, including NaCl, KCl, and others), which belongs on the ground instead of on the table.
You are the salt of the earth, Jesus says. Don't defile that identity in such a way that you can't bear witness to the world. Your righteousness, he says, must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. That means you have to accept a life of holiness befitting your identity as a follower of Jesus--as the salt of the earth and the light of the world. For so many (in Jesus' day and ours), hypocrisy sets in and renders the salt impure and nearly useless. The same is true for the religious life. Don't lose your saltness. Stay pure. Accept no substitutes.