"Blessed are the Salty" by Rev. Jillian Hankamer
The longest semester of my seminary career included THE 507: The Sermon on the Mount. That’s right, an entire 3-hour graduate-level course on the Sermon on the Mount. I’ve mentioned this class to some of you before, but to put it into perspective, this was five months of lectures, all essay exams, language studies, scriptural memorization, and dreaded group projects about three chapters of scripture. And though we did touch a bit on the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6, our main focus from January to May was Matthew 5, 6, and 7.
I can’t stress enough how inane and wasteful of my precious time I found this course while taking it. It was also taught by a professor whose teaching style drove me bananas. A lovely man who epitomizes the concept of a “Southern Gentleman” Dr. Peter-Rhea Jones is brilliant and meticulously learned. But the running joke amongst every student who took a class with him was that Dr. Jones had a tendency to pontificate. And to do so while seeming to pose for some sort of “professors of the south” calendar.
I’m sure the posing wasn’t intentional. Dr. Jones is just a dapper, elegant man. But his rabbit-chasing about the work of important “scholars” drove me crazy. Almost all of the references were people none of us had heard of or understood They seemingly came up out of nowhere. And worst of all, you couldn’t predict which “scholar” would be on the exam and which wouldn’t, so note-taking was an exhaustive guessing game.
Alas, the class was required for my Christian Social Ethics concentration so I suffered through it, worn out with “scholars,” Dr. Jones, and Jesus by May. But Dr. Jones’s refrain about the Sermon on the Mount being Jesus’ masterwork, a snapshot of Christ’s theology, the Beatitudes’ identity as some of the most beautiful words in scripture, and the whole sermon foreshadowing the presence of God both at the cross and in the empty tomb, came back to echo in my mind this week.
Because wouldn’t you know it, Dr. Jones was right; the Beatitudes are poetry. They’re also some of the most nuanced words Jesus speaks and “scholars” have been picking these verses apart since the beginning of the faith. And well they should because in a handful of verses, sitting in this elevated space with his disciples, Jesus “starts upending the value structure of society.”
Here’s the important background for understanding this morning’s reading. First, Jesus’ “going up” in verse 1 is intended to connect him to Moses going up Mt. Sinai. Second, the Beatitudes are not law but wisdom literature and there are beatitudes, which means a condition or statement of bliss, throughout the New Testament. Finally, though the Greek word markarios (makarioß) can be translated as “happy,” the best translation is the more common “blessed,” because what Jesus is describing is a sense of divine favor that comes with being given a blessing. The knowledge that you’re the recipient of divine grace.
What’s striking about Jesus’ beatitudes is who he’s blessing. For example, the “poor in spirit” describes those who struggle with being depleted or empty and those who’re in spiritual poverty or despair. Commentator Ben Witherington describes these folks as “those who are poor in the sense of oppression and abuse with the possible implication…they are downcast and depressed. These are people who know their need for God and turn to God.”
These aren’t the folks you’d typically think of as blessed, but what Jesus is doing is blessing people exactly where they are in life, not where they might be someday. Take “those who mourn” from verse 4; Jesus doesn’t tell them to stop mourning so he can bless them, or that their blessing will be waiting on them when they snap out of their grief. Jesus doesn’t dismiss peoples’ struggle but instead calls people markarios even in the midst of their pain.
So whether peoples’ souls are depleted, or grief grips them, they’re desperately trying to bring about reconciliation or suffering in the living out of their faith, Jesus makes it clear that “the grace of God meets you [where you are]… and pulls [you] forward.”
In fact, in the Greek, there isn’t a verb at the beginning of the Beatitudes. Instead, they begin in the present tense and the word markarios is the identifier. Some of this is due to how Koine Greek was constructed, but it’s telling that the first word Jesus uses for each of these groups is markarios, marking them immediately as “favored by God”. As the Working Preacher podcast so thoughtfully comments, what this tells us is “the experience of the present doesn’t define the future…the grace of God that’s real, now, is also the grace of God that calls you to look forward in hope to something that beyond what’s defined by the present moment.”
The grace of God and the pronouncement of Jesus’ blessing also call us to action starting in verse 13 when Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.”
What Jesus is saying is that the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted are called to share the blessing they’ve received with those around them. The gift of God’s grace isn’t something to be contained and it certainly can’t be owned. Neither is rejoicing in your own blessedness beneficial to the kin-dom of heaven unless you’re willing to be salty, to share with those around you.
You’re probably aware that salt was a valuable commodity in the ancient world, and it’s not an overstatement to say that salt was a contributing factor in the development of numerous civilizations. As early as the 6th-century Moorish merchants routinely traded salt ounce for ounce for gold. In what’s now Ethiopia slabs of rock salt were used as currency. “Each one was about ten inches long and two inches thick. Cakes of salt were also used as money in other areas of central Africa.”
Salt was also a good antiseptic, which is why the Roman “word for salt (sal) is a first cousin to Salus, the goddess of health. Of all the roads that led to Rome, one of the busiest was the Via Salaria, the salt route, over which Roman soldiers marched and merchants drove oxcarts full of the precious crystals up the Tiber from the salt pans at Ostia. A soldier’s pay—consisting in part of salt—came to be known as solarium argentum, from which we derive the word salary. A soldier’s salary was cut if he “was not worth his salt,” a phrase that came into being because the Greeks and Romans often bought slaves with salt.” There are over 30 references to salt in the biblical text including Levitictus 2:13, “With all thine offerings thou shalt offer salt” and more infamously Genesis 19:1-29 when Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt.
For his part, Jesus is more than aware of salt’s preservative qualities. Keep in mind, the means to keep food from spoiling are limited at this time and especially in this climate, so preservation is essential to keeping people fed. Using this familiar element, Jesus draws a parallel between preserving what fuels the body and preserving the grace of God for those who are hurting. Those who need to be fueled by the promise that God meets and calls people “blessed” first thing, even as they straddle the pit of despair.
But Jesus is also a human being with taste buds, so would be aware of salt’s bite. For you see, that’s the unspoken part of Jesus’ call to be “the salt of the earth,” the biting effect of being salty in a world where the routine is expected. The overwhelming sensation of something or someone who refuses to be part of the status quo. The eye-watering shock of tasting something that looks normal, unexceptional, even bland and having your mouth pucker because it’s so salty. The unspoken part of Jesus' call is to be too salty for some people who are used to churches and people of faith some flavor.
My friends, the Good News this morning is that God’s grace is given to us even at our most desperate moments. The challenge of this Good News is that these blessings are to be lived out in a world where they’re not routine, not the status quo, not what’s popular or even acceptable.
Being a person who lives the beatitudes in our society won’t make sense to most folks, because things like being a person of reconciliation is not routine in our red or blue, Democrat or Republican, America First world. Being merciful in a country in which capital punishment is the law of the land is not routine. Being aware of and owning our white, heterosexual privilege is not the norm. Being willing to walk with a friend through grief that lasts beyond the amount of time considered seemly and through stages that don’t come neatly in order but in continuous waves isn’t popular. Being willing to hunger and thirst after God’s righteousness that forces us to admit we’ve not acted how Christ would when it comes to immigration, racism, and LGBTQ+ equality is uncomfortable and unpopular.
But this is what we’re called by Christ to do. This is the faith were called to have – a faith with teeth, with a bite, that isn’t formed by what society finds acceptable but that finds its affirmation in the life and example of Christ.
The grace of God frees us from the constraints the world would place on us by its sheer abundance and availability. We’re identified as “blessed” first and foremost, but it’s up to us to live lives that are mindful and reflective of this grace. It’s up to us to create for ourselves, with each other in community, and for the sake of our community a faith life that isn’t concerned with routine, that doesn’t care about the status quo, and that isn’t worried about what society deems acceptable.
Blessed are the salty my friends. Let’s be a people with some bite.