This morning in Finaghy Baptist, our pastor Gary was preaching from Matthew 5 verses 13 to 17, in which Jesus tells us as His followers that we are to make an impact on the world, so that people may glorify God. Jesus describes us as "the salt of the earth" and warns us that salt must not lose its taste. This set my mind running down an etymological trail.
I confess to being an etymology nerd. For those who are less nerdy, etymology is the study of the origin of words. I am fascinated by languages and by the relationship between and origin of words, especially English words. I knew that the word 'salt' is related to a number of other English words. Salary derives from the Latin word describing the money paid to Roman soldiers with which they could buy salt. Some food words like salad, sausage, sauce and salami are also related because salt was a key ingredient that gave flavour.
My mind immediately went to another word - salacious, meaning lustful or interested in sexual matters. Might it also derive from the same root as salt? It seemed like it might. After all, the word is especially used of news articles and we might think they are 'salty' in the sense of making us thirst for more. When I checked with the help of Google, though, I found I was wrong. Salacious derives from a different Latin word, salire, which means 'to leap'. That word also gives us the English 'salient' - something that leaps out at you. In 'salacious' the reference seems to be to the way some animals leap around when they are aroused.
So, my etymological ponderings had gone astray, it seemed. But I was not completely convinced. The question remained why the words seemed so similar. I dug a little deeper and found on a more detailed Etymology site (it's called Etymologeek - a beautifully geeky name for a site designed for people like me!) the suggestion that both the English word salt and the Latin word salire have roots originally in a Proto-Indo-European (the theoretical language that is the ancestor of most European and northern Indian languages) word sals. Interestingly (for geeks at least) that word meant 'mine' (as in the place where something is dug from the ground). Since salt was mined, the word came to be attached to the thing that was being dug up. I'm less clear how it came to be linked to jumping, but such etymological mysteries are lost in the mists of time.
So, what is my point, you may rightly ask? Well, I thought of the word salacious because I was struck on a working trip to Dublin this week by the ubiquity of the rainbow flag and by the incessant trailing of 'Pride' related media on streaming services and broadcasters. I am troubled by this not primarily because of moral questions about homosexuality, but more so because Pride events and many of the films and programmes being connected with Pride seem so often to be raucously sexual. Tight clothing, revealed flesh, sexual swearing, provocative movements, suggestive expressions seem commonplace. I would be troubled by these no less if they were 'heterosexual'. It is all so 'salacious'.
I suppose this is at least in part because Pride is all about being noticed. Being proud of what others have said people should be ashamed of. Bringing into the open what others have tried to suppress. Coming out of the closet and declaring 'I am what I am'. I understand that to a large degree as regards an approach to campaining by LGBT activists . It has been incredibly effective. But bringing the issue into the open should not have to mean being explicitly sexual in public. There should, surely, be a difference between uncovering an issue and uncovering flesh.
Christians must never be salacious. We see sex as something precious - a gift from God with a proper context within marriage. We see nakedness as something that is not evil in itself but can be a pathway to temptation. We should not be casually sexual in our language or behaviour. We should be modest and treat sex as precious.
So, let's never be salacious. But we should be salty. We should be noticable and interesting, not invisible and dull. Not a noticeable that comes from bright colours, way out costumes or loud slogans, but from counter-cultural kindness and goodness. We should stand out and be interesting exactly because we don't try to be and people should find us intriguing because we don't find ourselves that interesting, but are beautifully selfless in our adoration for Another. If we love Jesus as we should, we will find it hard not to talk about Him too. We must bring our Christian convictions out of the closet. We may frown at the idea of taking pride in ourselves or boasting about ourselves, but we should be positively exuberant about God and His glory.
Returning to the idea of Christians being the 'salt of the earth', we might ask what it means for us to be salty. I can think of three words which I think would have been clear to first century people:
Preserving - the presence of Christians in a culture preserves it. We might think our world is deteriorating morally, but it would be immeasurably worse if it were not for Christians in so many sectors of society, quietly and faithfully honouring God by working hard with integrity and blessing many others through acts of service. Christians should bring good for all people in society.
Provoking - the good works and kind words of Christians should make life more interesting, enriching it and drawing out its flavours, just as salt does when added to food. A world without God is bland. Sex without God is empty and boring. A Christian perspective on life - full of gratitude, replete with hope, finding greater meaning in everything - is interesting. When we act and talk as we should, people will see that we enjoy life in a way they do not. They might even get thirsty because of our saltiness and start longing for the living water Jesus offers. Good words are not enough for us to be salt in the world. If not accompanied by words about God, they won't give glory to Him but bring it to ourselves. We must be provocative in our saltiness by explaining the gospel.
Precious - this is not a third effect of salt but a quality of salt that might be lost to us but I think would have been clear to the people Jesus spoke to. Recently my wife and I visited the salt mines near Krakow (they are stunning!) and the guide said that the wealth of Krakow was built on the proceeds from the salt mined there. Salt was valuable (hence the word 'salary'). For us, it is cheap, but for them it was precious. Never forget as you seek to be the influence God calls you to be, that you are precious. The world may not treat you as if you are - it may respond to your testimony to God by seeking to trample you underfoot - but to God you are immeasurably valuable. So much so that He gave His Son for you.
So, let us be always salty: the precious, provocative, preserving people of God.