CULTURE SAYS ‘WHATEVER WORKS’?
The title of Woody Allen’s 2009 movie, ‘Whatever Works’ captures the mood of post-modern ethics. Starting with the presupposition that great thinkers like Jesus or Karl Marx were great teachers, the movie contends that religions work from the fallacy that people are inherently good. Life as we know it now, is all there is. There is no God; no final accounting. Part of life’s challenge is to find moments of love and joy. So, we need to do, ‘Whatever Works…’
The moral subjectivism of the movie seems so plausible, tolerant, and so mature. There’s no guilt in life, only disappointments. Because we all die we should do whatever works to make us happy.
One of the strengths of societies that have been framed by the ‘Common Law’, introduced in England in the 9th century by Alfred the Great, is that they have a moral framework. Much refined over the following centuries, this ‘Common Law’ is framed with reference to the Mosaic Law and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount’. This in turn has shaped the laws of England and Britain as a whole, as well as the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
King Alfred, a professing Christian, was not only a capable military strategist but also a wise and visionary ruler. It seems that because he knew the Christ who had taught the Beatitudes, he worked for peaceful solutions even with the most ruthless of his enemies. As one historian comments: Alfred had the wisdom to realize that the sword, though powerful to defend, could settle nothing permanently, and that only the conquest of the heart could endure (Arthur Bryant, The Story of England: Makers of the Realm, 1953).
SALT OF THE EARTH
Why did King Alfred respond the way he did? Clearly he understood not only Jesus’ Beatitudes, but also Jesus’ following words: “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot…” (Matthew 5:13).
Salt. In Jesus’ day salt was used for a number of purposes – as seasoning to bring out the flavor of food, and also as a preservative. At a time of no refrigeration, salt was rubbed into fresh meat to prevent it from rotting. Jesus is saying that his followers are to act as a preservative in the world — to slow down the decay. This is what King Alfred was endeavoring to do in 9th century England. And as we look back over history, we see he was laying the foundation for a great nation.
COUNTER-CULTURAL LIFE OF JESUS
This becomes our challenge today. If we are to stand against the dehumanizing elements of our world, we need to be ready to understand the counter-cultural life Jesus calls us to live. We also need the grace and the wisdom to live it. Only when we are willing to stand up and do this as God’s people will we stop the rot. But this will only happen if we ourselves don’t become insipid. That’s why Jesus goes on to warn against salt losing its saltiness.
Now, strictly speaking salt can’t lose its saltiness. NaCl is a stable compound. However, in the ancient world salt was obtained from salt marshes rather than through the evaporation of sea water. There were many impurities in it. And there’s also a play on words here that Jesus’ first hearers would have picked up. ‘Salt’ in Aramaic is Tabel. And there’s a word very close to it, Tapel which means fool. ‘Watch out,’ Jesus is saying, ‘that you don’t become insipid, wishy-washy followers and so make fools of yourselves.’
What a warning. ‘If you call yourself a follower of mine,’ Jesus is saying, ‘your life will be different.’ So we need to ask: How do other people see us? Do we go to church but our life remains unchanged? Is our life shaped by the culture or by the Bible? Are we just as unforgiving, just as greedy and selfish as everyone around us? ‘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.’