Dale Appleby

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Insulting the Salt
Verbal abuse, Defamation, and Salt. Matthew 5.11-16

[A YouTube  version is available here]

Christians have always known opposition and persecution. The present time has given rise to a form of “shouting down”, in which rational discussion seems quite difficult and insults are common. As well many Christians in the west are confused and discouraged by the apparent loss of their ascendancy in society. There is a temptation to use the weapons of the world. But the opposition provides opportunities for something different.

Early in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus gives some help for disciples who find themselves opposed.The sermon begins with beatitudes that are for “those who…”, and are addressed to the disciples and to the crowd..

In Matthew 5.11 Jesus changes his address specifically to the disciples. In vv 11-16, Jesus speaks to “you”. Here is the first direct teaching to the disciples in Matthew.

In the first case it is about what Nolland calls the verbal abuse, persecution, and defamation directed at disciples “because of me”.  They are blessed because they are successors in some sense to the prophets.

At first it appears that they are like the prophets in that they are also persecuted. To understand this better we should ask whether the sayings in vv11-16 are separate aphorisms or whether they are all part of the same topic.

I propose that it is all one topic and the next section about salt and light helps us understand the connection between persecution and salt and light.

The saying about salt losing its saltiness is a puzzle for at least two reasons. One is that it is hard to understand how salt can become unsavoury. The other is that the word translated “lose its saltiness” (moranthe μωρανθῇ) never carries a meaning like that. The word usually means foolish, mad, stupefied (Nolland 213).

The statement about salt is ironic. Jesus is affirming that salt can’t be unsalted. Saltiness is its nature. “You are the salt of the world”, Jesus says. And if others think you are moranthe they are mistaken. It would be foolish to even consider that salt would need to be thrown out and trodden underfoot.  If salt was unsalted it would indeed be useless.  But that is not the case with Jesus’ disciples.

But some people do want the salt to be thrown out. They regard it as  moranthe. These are the kind of people who persecuted and insulted the prophets. The connection with the prophets may be more than the fact that they were persecuted. It may also be the reason why they were persecuted. Because like the disciples they too were salt in the land of Israel.

If this is so it also helps us see how to choose among the varied roles of salt.  Disciples, like the prophets before them, are acting on God’s behalf to salt the earth. What that means in Matthew begins to be revealed in the following Sermon, and is developed in the gospel. Put simply it means being like your Father.

At the beginning of Jesus’ training of his disciples is the surprising blessing of being opposed. The opposition is because they are disciples of Jesus, and as such are carrying out a role that brings them into conflict with the rebelliousness of others.

This does not seem like a good start for those who are looking for comfort, salvation, ease and prosperity.

In contrast to the opposition and maligning from their opponents, the disciples are to put themselves on display like lights on a hill. (This is a parallel picture to the imagery of salt - both are about the same thing - the behaviour of the disciples). This might seem to put them in danger of further persecution.

But Jesus said that shining their light would put their good deeds on display. He knows the Father will be glorified by their good deeds. Furthermore the people who opposed and maligned them would glorify the Father of the disciples. That is quite a turn around from the abuse of verse 11. It suggests one of the effects of salt-disciples. Persecution and opposition is not the whole story. More important is how to respond to it. Salt, light, good deeds are the way.  Insulting the salt doesn’t change its saltiness. Quite the reverse. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Rom 12.21.

Sharing in the same kind of persecution the prophets experienced is cause for rejoicing. Not just because disciples belong to the same team, and not just because of the heavenly reward. But because the mission of prophets and disciples brings about change on the earth, and glory in heaven. The Father is glorified because these are the deeds of the Father.

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