Life depends on salt. We cannot function without it. The people of Jesus’ day would not have known it, but even the proper functioning of our nervous system depends on salt — sodium — although too much salt can hurt us — ask any heart patient! Salt is good for many things. It was once used as currency, thus giving rise to the expression, “He is not worth his salt.” Salt gives flavor to food. Salt is still used as a preservative, and its use as a preservative has given us a taste for various foods, especially our morning bacon or for country ham.
Because the people of Jesus’ day were every bit as dependent on salt as we are, salt made a good image for Him to use. However, the image might not work as well for us today since we are used to salt being crystalline granules in a salt shaker, that is, well, always salty. How, then, could salt lose its taste?
The sea is a major source of salt, either the present day seas or ancient sea beds that are now dry. For the people of Jesus’ day, there were two primary sources of salt. One was seaweed. People simply put some seaweed in the pot and cooked the salt out of it. Once the food tasted right, the seaweed was removed. The seaweed could be used several times, but eventually all the salt would be cooked out and thus “lose its taste.”
The second and more common source of salt was from the Dead Sea, the saltiest sea on earth, but this salt had other minerals and compounds mixed with it. When Dead Sea salt deposits were dissolved for their salt, the remaining minerals would leave a useless, bad-tasting compound. The remains were good for nothing “but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”
Both of these sources for salt gave the experience of having the flavor of the salt go flat. This can be like our experience of certain people. We meet someone and are immediately taken with the person. He or she truly “adds spice to life.” But, sometimes such people prove to be shallow. After a great start with them, we find ourselves being disappointed. They are not worth their salt.
This can also be an experience in our faith. We are drawn to church services that are beautiful and have good music and preaching, but too many times this is our only expectation. We expect to be entertained by our worship. We look for the “Feel Good about Yourself Gospel.” Eventually life will become difficult, and no amount of entertainment will serve us. Our faith has to be based on something deeper or it will go flat and will be good for nothing.
Jesus also used the image of the lamp. A lamp is meant to be used. A hidden lamp is useless. Such is the gift of faith. It is meant to be used. Faith must be shared. It must be seen. Our faith must not be left in the church where it is hidden. It must be put on the lampstand of the world so it aids everyone.
The context of our passage from Isaiah concerns the proper use of fasting. Fasting had long been a spiritual practice of the Jews. Physical comfort and need were sacrificed so that spiritual life and spiritual needs would come to the fore, but Isaiah saw fasting become a source of bragging. Isaiah meant to return fasting to its intended purpose, that is, to make a difference in the lives of the poor. When a person fasted, he or she did not merely give up food. They either gave away the food they would have eaten or its equivalent value in alms.
Isaiah put faith on a lampstand. “Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed, clothe the naked.” These are outward expressions of faith. Isaiah says we must participate in these expressions of our faith, but we are not to do these things for our own glory. Outward expressions of faith reveal the glory of the Lord. If we do these things intending to serve God, His light will shine. People will see God’s light like a city on a mountain, and they will want to go to that city. It is like the words in the folk hymn, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” Properly putting our faith on a lampstand can become the means of conversion.
If we go to Mass just to get something, then Mass will go flat for us, and this is the biggest complaint, “I don’t get anything out of it!” The mistake is that we go not to get something, we go to give something. We go to express something. We actually do go to Mass in part to be seen. If my friends see me there, they will gain support from my presence. Certain kinds of faith, like a certain source of salt, can go flat. We can’t let that happen.
FATHER STEINER, born and reared in Chattanooga, Tenn., is a priest of the Diocese of Nashville. He currently serves as rector of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville. Previously, he served in the diocesan high school as teacher, associate principal, and principal. He received his education from St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana, the Gregorian University in Rome, and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.