SALT, FIRE and EARTH in Jesus’ context demonstrates the need for a respectful reading of Scripture in light of Mediterranean culture.
Hearing the Gospel this Sunday at Mass about “setting the earth on fire” (Luke 12:49-53), I couldn’t help but recalling other passages where Jesus spoke on “earth” and fire.” For instance, take Matthew 5:13–
“You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”
(See Synoptic parallels: Mark 9:50 // Luke 14:34-35).
Why would I recall that passage? Do you see the “fire” there? If not, perhaps you need to check your reading glasses. They may be too Western. Assuredly fire is alluded. The problem is it’s invisible for 21st century Western eyes.
Getting Salty with Culture
Let’s consider salt and what it means. Does salt have anything to do with fire? Like all words, salt is a symbol carrying meaning. The meanings of words are not derived from dictionaries, concordances, interlinears, and lexica. The meanings of words come from social systems. “Salt” is multivalent. One and the same set of symbols can have multiple meanings.
Respectful Bible readers strive not to put their 21st century Western meanings into the ancient Mediterranean library called Bible. To prevent this insult, we must vigilantly check our cultural lenses as we read the Scriptures. Watch your reading glasses!
So, did Jesus mean that his audience was a seasoning for food when he called them “salt of the earth”? Did first century Galilean peasants use table salt?
We 21st century Westerners use salt as a preservative—could this be Jesus’ meaning? Salt preserves meat. For that reason was Jesus’ telling his followers to preserve the earth? Did Jesus and starving Galilean peasants like him enjoy bountiful meat supplies? Or was fifty percent of their dreadfully limited caloric intake limited to bread?
And by “earth,” did Jesus mean “the planet Earth”? Was Jesus a globalist? Did he mean anything ecological, or international, or planetary here? (It is here where many Christians escape into the “safe” closet of Docetism—“Why not?? Maybe! After all, He is GOD!!”)
Does salt ever lose its flavor? What does Jesus mean by that?
But Father said it means ______________!
The vast majority of Western homilies explain biblical “salt” as something that spices things up, makes food tastier, and preserves meat. So if the Church is to truly be the “salt of the earth,” it must therefore (these homilists reason) spice up the world and preserve everything good within it.
That sure sounds nice to Western ears! But is this really what Jesus meant? Could this be what “Matthew” and “Luke” were saying?
Salt carries still other meanings. Imagine a creative homilist some years ago enduring with congregation a freezing winter in an ice-cold North American city. She or he preaches on the Matthean passage above about being “salt of the earth.” This homilist then compares Christian discipleship to how his or her city employs salt to break up ice on streets and gets things flowing.
Question: could such an association for “salt” have possibly have been in the mind of the first century MENA (Middle Eastern North African) personality Jesus, village peasant in Roman Syro-Palestine? Whether you answer “Yes!” or “No!”—how do you know for sure? Where would you go to find out?
Having read this passage, your mind starts generating ideas about what it means. What do you think it means?
Honest to Mediterranean Culture Jesus
Imagine the Matthean Jesus’ first century audience. Surely Jesus intended to communicate to them something when he proposed that they should be like “salt”! What would they have understood by this?
Perhaps a helpful direction would be to recognize that whatever it meant, it was definitely something remote from anything associated with 21st century American life!
Context Group Scripture scholar Dr. Richard Rohrbaugh reminds us that “Language only means what it means where and when you use it.” Move “salt” out of the Galilee of 2,000 years ago and watch what happens. “Salt” as symbol has multiple meanings.
Our sacred and normative library called “Bible” is a collection of symbols and it has a multitude of multiple meanings. Move the Bible and see what happens. To really read it respectfully and get its original meaning we must remove our Western glasses of cultural meanings. This should be obvious.
Which of the meanings is correct? Which meaning of all the possible meanings is “the true meaning” of “salt”? And how do we know that?
Finding the Plausible Meaning in Culture
Perhaps we should ask it differently: of the various possible meanings, which is the most plausible meaning? Quite often the answers we jump to—e.g., salt as spice or seasoning, or as preservative, or as something that breaks up ice—tell us more about ourselves than about Biblical peoples.
So how do we pinpoint the most plausible meaning of biblical salt? Shouldn’t that meaning be found in biblical culture?—the ancient Mediterranean, ancient Middle Eastern world of Jesus, “Matthew,” and “Luke”? When reading Scripture, it seems, we Western people need a different pair of culturally-respectful glasses.
Perhaps depressingly, unlike the movies Avengers: Endgame and Hot Tub Time Machine, we cannot simply time-travel back 2,000 years and ask Jesus—or “Mark” or “Matthew” or “Luke”—what “salt” means. The world of Jesus and these men is gone…
… but maybe not forgotten! Thankfully we have access to traditional Middle Eastern life, the closest thing like a “living laboratory” to the ancient Mediterranean world and its cultural values. Experts in the social sciences can help the dead speak in ways honest to them.
While we should remove our Western 21st century glasses when reading Mediterranean Scripture, we should not throw them away! Western Christians ought to deepen their understanding of their own faith and culture. But doing that will inescapably reveal that our culture and its values would be considered alien and strange to our Biblical ancestors in the faith.
Bible Readings Insensitive to Culture
Failing to recognize these many cultural differences inevitably turns Biblical characters and communities into 21st century Westerners. Indeed, whenever American Christians of any stripe pick up a Bible and read it, it takes herculean effort for them not to make its characters behave, appear as, think like, and sound like Americans.
Evidence of this is the preponderance of U.S. Catholics and other Christians making statements like: “CLEARLY the Bible says…” or “OBVIOUSLY it means…” Despite popular and wrong notions, reading the Bible takes work, folks.
Some salty Christians may scoff, “Why make the Word of God so complicated? Everyone knows what salt means! Obviously Jesus means what we would mean by it!”
Simply put, the Bible was not written for, by, or about us Westerners, regardless of our religious aspirations and hopes. With great effort we might find INDIRECT and SACRAMENTAL relevance for our Western lives, but the literal sense—what the text meant to the sacred human authors—comes first. That sense is the basis for everything else (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 116).
Acquiring the literal sense of Scripture without the Mediterranean culture is impossible. The first interpretation of the Bible is Mediterranean culture, especially the Middle Eastern part, the closest thing we have to a “living laboratory” to the lost world of the Bible.
So What Did It Mean to Jesus?
Culturally-informed historical critics of the Bible inform us that the “earth” in these passages is not the planet earth. In contrast to that wrong notion, both in the Matthean passage and this past Sunday’s Gospel from “Luke,” “earth” can be appropriately translated as “earth-oven.” What is to be imagined is an earthen oven (cf. Job 28:5; Psalm 12:6) out back and adjacent to the Galilean peasant household complex.
Usually a peasant hamlet like Nazareth—with no more than 200 persons—would only have one of these ovens. Because of this, each household would get its bread from this sole oven.
The village earth-oven would have a double stove, a big pile of animal dung, with chickens and goats and sheep not too far away. Salt would be there too.
Village women would make patties of dung mixed with salt as fuel for the oven. That’s not really how you picture the Mother of God, is it?
Note—salt that has lost its catalytic ability is useless for the village earth-oven and useless for preparing fuel = dung. The “land” or “earth” ( = the earth oven) cannot use it; the dunghill (potential fuel) cannot use it. What do we do with this worthless ashen crap? Imagine a disciple who lost catalytic ability! What is he or she good for?
Once that salt-based dung fuel was chemically exhausted, burning obviously ceased. Therefore what remained was “fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out. Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear.” (Luke 14:34-35).
This past Sunday’s Gospel was about starting fires, “getting things cooking,” as it were. Jesus was a catalyst, a fire-starter. This Middle Eastern master of the insult was not nice. What we call “nice” would be laughable to Roman occupiers. “Nice” did not get crucified.
Jesus’ followers were not called to be nice, either. They were also called to be troublesome fire-starters “getting things cooking.” Salt read in context shows this.
Starting fires was messy business, mixing salt plus dung! That’s where feeding starving peasants their “daily bread,” one-half of their calories, began, in that dung pile. And the ashes in that earth-oven, a sign on the foreheads of shamed sinners, wasn’t produced from last year’s palms, I can assure you!
Taking Inspiration (and Culture) Seriously
In+spiration and in+carnation are MESSY BUSINESS as well. We have to take the prefix “IN” seriously.
What would happen if we doubted our Western “infallibility” as to spuriously familiar Gospel passages concerning salt? Besides that, wouldn’t things be seen very differently if instead we read the Matthean Jesus meaning that his audience was to be fire-starters? Consequently, how would that impact our understanding of Christian life and discipleship?
Evangelists we call “Mark”, “Matthew”, and “Luke” wrote for their first century Mediterranean contemporaries, presuming that their audiences understood “salt” as they did. They were not writing for Americans or had American associations with salt in mind. How could they?
The Pontifical Biblical Commission’s 1994 document Interpretation of the Bible in the Church instructed Catholic Bible readers of three crucial steps involved in right interpretation—
1) You better know your own (Western) culture very well!
2) You better know the Biblical (Mediterranean) culture very well.
3) Finally, only with these working together can you start to construct a bridge between these two alien cultures.
The Messiness of this Blog
The business of this blog is growing this understanding and building bridges. Readers should become equipped to actually grasp what the inspired authors ACTUALLY wrote about and what their meaning ACTUALLY was. This will help us become respectful readers of the Scriptures and learn “the honest truth about Jesus” as the Second Vatican Council put it.
Everything is interpretation, folks. The late Context Group scholar John Pilch said, “You’ve heard it said that in the beginning was the Word? Don’t believe that. In the beginning was interpretation.” Pilch was right and in this blog we will explore thousands of ways why. And hopefully, along the way, we will actually start to respect the MENA personality Jesus. Can you love someone you don’t respect?
For a deeper dive into the Sunday Gospel…