People who are honorable and dependable are sometimes said to be ‘the salt of the earth’. The expression comes from Jesus’ teaching in his Sermon on the Mount, where he said to his followers: “You are the salt of the earth”. What does he mean?

People in Jesus’ day, as we do today, used salt for seasoning food, to bring out its flavor. It was also used as a preservative. In the days of no refrigeration it was rubbed into fresh meat to prevent it from rotting. Jesus is saying that his followers are to act as a preservative — to slow down the world’s decay.

What does he mean? Jesus has in mind the radical lifestyle that he has just spoken about in his eight Beatitudes. There he sets out who are the truly blessed, people who would inherit God’s eternal kingdom. He teaches that God blesses everyone who understands their spiritual poverty before him; who weep for their failure to honor him and for a world that turns its back on him; people who, instead of engaging in the power play and deceptions of the world, walk the tougher path of humility and service, truth and peace. Jesus’ Beatitudes were radical, awakening us to the depths of our human need.

Indeed, it was because Jesus knew humanity without God would always tend to spiral away from truth and goodness, that he called on his followers to be the salt of the earth. He expects everyone who has turned to him to live in a way that slows down the rot of self-interest and greed, of injustice and the unchecked power-play of society elites.

Consider this. Back in 2009 Woody Allen produced the movie, Whatever Works. It captures the mood of values today. Starting with the presupposition that life now is all there is, we’re told that there is no God and no final accounting. Part of life’s challenge is to do whatever works to find the fleeting moments of love and joy. The moral subjectivism that pervades the movie seems plausible, realistic and tolerant. There’s no guilt, only disappointments along life’s way.

But how satisfying is this? I often meet people who want what they call the real thing: a loving, satisfying, committed, long-term relationship. They also hope that there will be a day when this world’s wrongs are brought to account.

Today’s world which says that everyone should be tolerant, makes tolerance the one value that determines all other values. The irony is that we need something to define tolerance, otherwise we won’t know whether we are being tolerant or not.

And there is something else here that today’s world ignores: all of us are flawed. We are bent on looking after Number One first. When we read the four recognized and reliable accounts of Jesus’ public life, we discover that his primary purpose was to address the heart of the human tragedy. In doing that, he was not interested in spiritual band-aids. Rather, he was committed to the major surgery that was required to deal once and for all with humanity’s fatal flaw. This is why he volunteered to die on the cross.

For men and women to stand against the dehumanising elements around them, they need good and godly examples pointing them to Jesus and to the kingdom of God. But this will only happen when Jesus’ followers don’t become insipid themselves. That’s why he goes on to warn against salt losing its saltiness.

“You are the salt of the earth, he says, 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” (Matthew 5:13).

Strictly speaking, salt can’t lose its saltiness. Chemists tell us that NaCl is a stable compound. However in the ancient world, salt was generally obtained from salt marshes and contained many impurities. The actual salt could be leeched out, leaving a substance that tasted salty but in fact was worthless. There’s an interesting play on Jesus’ words here. Salt in Aramaic is tabel. And there’s a word very close to it, tapel which means fool. ‘Watch out,’ Jesus warns, ‘that you don’t become insipid, wishy-washy fools’.

Let me ask, how do other people see you? Do you claim to be a believer but your life remains unchanged? Is your life-style directed by the culture or by the Bible? Are you just as unforgiving, just as greedy, just as selfish as everyone around you?         ‘If you call yourself a follower of mine,’ Jesus says, ‘let your life be transformed by my words, for you are the salt of the earth’.

And there is something else. In his Letter to the Colossians Paul the Apostle writes: Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time… Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone (Colossians 4:5-6).

We’re to cultivate conversations that are kind and gracious but seasoned with salt. Salt here is a metaphor for sparkling conversations that trigger questions about life. Have you considered ways to use news items, opinion columns, and films to spark conversations about the God of good news? After all, it is God’s gospel alone that truly changes hearts and minds for good.

You are the salt of the earth.