Unsalty salt

I used to wear a cape.

It was when I was little, perhaps five or six (and then there was that one time in high school). Well, it would really be a stretch to call it a cape. In actuality, it was a beach towel fastened around my neck with a clothes pin.

I would put on a blue jogging suit, strap my cape around my neck, and jump off my top bunk, as though I could fly. Remarkably, no matter how many times I jumped, I always hit the ground. In all those exercises, not once did I achieve flight.

Eventually I realized, no matter how well I dressed myself up, I was not Superman.

In Luke 14, Jesus has something to say on this topic as it concerns the Christian life. In a heated discussion with Pharisees, onlookers, and his disciples, Jesus combats several misconceptions. At the beginning of the chapter we are told that Jesus has attended a dinner party at the house of a Pharisee. Here, he confronts them about their legalism on the issue of healing on the sabbath. Then, he critiques their self-aggrandizement through choosing seats of honor at feasts. Finally, he tells a chilling parable in which a man hosts a grand banquet. After having his initial guests refuse his invitation, their places are given to anyone who would accept.

The chapter finishes with an interesting word directed not towards the Pharisees but the crowds that had accompanied him. He tells them they must renounce family, life, and all they have or they will not be his disciples. Then, in a really odd statement, Jesus finished his remarks with a discussion of salt that has lost its saltiness.

He says, “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored?  It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Luke 14:34-35)

It is a familiar passage, mentioned in other gospels, but have you ever thought about what it means? Jesus is talking about unsalty salt.

If we dissect this idea, we see two apparent problems with unsalty salt. The first problem, and most obvious, is that it cannot exist. There is no such thing as unsalty salt.  A salt’s saltiness is what makes it salt. It is bound up in the very chemical composition of the compound. It is a characteristic that cannot be changed either. The only way to make salt unsalty is to make it not be salt. Furthermore, any time salt is created, it is automatically salty. When this key characteristic is taken from salt, it ceases to be salt.

Salt cannot be unsalty.

Secondly, even if salt could somehow be made unsalty, then practically, it is of no value. For salt’s saltiness is the thing that makes it of value. The only uses of salt revolve around this chief characteristic of saltiness. It is a preserving agent, but not if it is unsalty. It is a flavoring agent, but not if its unsalty. Without its saltiness, salt is worthless.

But what is the point? Why did Jesus appear to take a tangent from his discussion to talk about salt?

The answer lies in the context of the passage. At the dinner party, Jesus conversed with the allegedly religious of their day. They were the “good church-goers” to put it in language we use today, yet, despite their position in society as the religious folk, Jesus corrected their thinking in what that means. He did not approve of their legalism, selfishness, or desire to make themselves more important in front of others. As a matter of fact, this is what caused him to turn to the crowd and tell them they must give up everything if they are to follow him. Immediately before this aside about salt, we find these words: “So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”

In truth, Jesus is using this idea of unsalty salt as a word picture to point to the absurdity and apparent contradiction in a person’s words and deeds. It is in one moment both a description of the Pharisees and a warning to those who are listening. The Pharisees have claimed to be the religious and sanctified; however, they exhibit none of the key characteristics. They are like unsalty salt.

By making this comparison, Jesus points out two things. No matter how much they say they are holy, these Pharisees are not. Being right with God is not about saying you are, but having the key characteristics that exhibit such. Furthermore, he is also saying their actions are worthless.

This passage also stands as a warning to the crowds. Jesus has just explained that, in contrast to the actions of the Pharisees, his true disciple will be the one who renounces everything and makes Christ preeminent in life. No manner of calling yourself a disciple makes you one. Instead, in order to truly be a disciple, you must possess the key characteristics of a disciple. Otherwise, you are a thing that cannot exist.

If we are honest, it is as common today as it was back then. Many times, I am afraid much of our established “church folk” take on the attitude of the Pharisees in this passage. I have that term in quotes because many today are members of the church on paper, and yet they possess no key characteristics that would identify them with the body of Christ. We puff ourselves up with position and an attitude that says we are holier than those around us. We talk as though we are in God’s special favor, merely because people use the magic word Christian to describe us. Unfortunately, it is not the title Christian that makes us such. It is the characteristic of a life set apart in Christ.

Anyone who thinks they are entitled to God’s favor merely because of a label, well, that is someone who thinks they are Superman just because they wear a cape.

 

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