The salt of the earth

A sermon for Epiphany 5 | 1 Cor 2:1-12 and Matt 5:13-20

On 12th March 1930 a 61-year-old man took 78 friends and they began a 390 km march across the country of India towards a village called Dandi off the coast of the Arabian Sea.  After a 23-day-long journey on April 5, Gandhi and his satyagrahis reached their destination.

After prayers were offered, Gandhi spoke to the large crowd and he picked up a small lump of natural salt, in doing so he broke the law.  Within moments, the rest of the crowd followed Gandhi’s passive defiance, picking up salt everywhere along the coast.

The march was called the Salt Satyagrahi made in response to the Salt Tax.  A Satyagrahai was a word that Gandhi coined when he was in South Africa, it literally means ‘asking for truth.’  This name was given to the many non-violent protests Gandhi organised which were aimed at undermining British Imperialism in India.

[Editor’s note: We were unable to record this sermon. Sorry for the inconvenience.]

The taxation of salt has occurred in India since the earliest times. However, this tax was raised when the British East India Company began to establish its rule over provinces in India. In 1835, special taxes were imposed on Indian salt to facilitate its importation, bringing in huge profits for the traders of the British East India Company.  The Brits made it illegal to make salt in India.

After collecting salt on the beach, Gandhi continued southward along the coast, producing sea salt and addressing villagers on the way. His group planned to stage a satyagraha at the Salt Works, 25 miles south of Dandi. However, he was arrested on the midnight of May 4, 1930, instead police beat the protesters, non of whom raised a hand in their defence. The Salt March and the beating at the Salt Works drew worldwide attention to the Indian independence movement.

When it was learned that Gandhi had chosen the Salt Tax to be his first statement to the British Government, he was laughed at.  People didn’t think that this would have any impact on the government at all.  In Canada, we may not understand the significance of this mineral, we have it in abundance, so much so that we throw it all over the roads every winter.

But, there are many reasons that salt was an important commodity.  Salt is one of the oldest, most commonly used food seasonings.  Salting is an important method of food preservation. Salt not only strengthens flavour and preserves food but in ancient times was rubbed on newborn children, as a cleansing ritual.  It was used to seal covenants, sprinkled on sacrifices, and understood as a metaphor for wisdom, it was used as a method of currency, which is where we get the phrase, ‘worth his weight in salt.’

In the 1900’s, experiments were done with seawater, the filtered diluted salt water was used as a replacement for blood, because it has all of the minerals of blood.  Salt is part of our being, part of our daily lives and one of the basic human tastes.

On top of this, India, being in a tropical country, sweating caused the need for a greater intake of salt.  The salt tax was a deeply symbolic choice, because salt was used by virtually everyone in India, it was more than just an abstract demand for the rights of the poor.

Explaining his choice, Gandhi said, “Next to air and water, salt is perhaps the greatest necessity of life.”  The Salt Act was altered but never formally lifted, however, the world began to realise that this was not the point. The Salt Satyagraha had demonstrated to the world a different way to engage in conflict.  The campaign had a remarkable effect on changing the worlds opinion, and British attitude toward Indian independence and caused large numbers of Indians to actively join the fight for the first time.  It also has a significant influence on Martin Luther King Jnr, and the way he chose to fight for civil rights in the 60’s.  This small non-aggressive action gave flavour and inspiration to so many more events in history.  Just as a little flavourful salt can have an impact far beyond its size, spreading through the whole of something much larger.

So as with Gandhi’s example, along side the parable, there are so many layers of meaning that could be explored or drawn from it.  Jesus calls us the salt of the earth, Jesus does not, you’ll notice, state this in future tense.  It’s not that the followers of Jesus will some day become the “salt of the earth.”  They are already that right now.  We are told that we are also “the light of the world.”  he says both simply and directly, it is, as with last week’s Beatitudes, sheer blessing, commendation, affirmation, and commissioning.  Go and be the thing that you are already!

As with all metaphors, it is easy to get lost in the metaphor.  Interpreters spend a lot of time and effort trying to figure out Jesus’ meaning of the images of salt and light.  Some to the extreme, and maybe that is a poignant point, extremes are not good either.  Too much salt is caustic, damaging, too much in food makes it inedible.  Too much light can blind you.  Either way, what is important is that we live our lives in a way that brings out the flavour of the Gospel, otherwise as Jesus said “it’s useless!”

When I listen to what Paul is telling the Corinthians, it sounds very much like the mindset of Gandhi.  He was not a man of flowery speeches, but what he did say and do was worth paying attention to because it contained a wisdom beyond the rulers of the age.  He did not come with plausible words of wisdom but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power.  This moved the faith of millions from the conventional wisdom of “the one with the biggest stick wins,” to one that follows the example of the lamb before the slaughter, going silently and without resistance.  Maybe by calling us the salt of the earth  Jesus is of telling us that the Spirit of God is within us, and now that we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit of God, we may understand the gifts that are bestowed on us by God.  Using them as we are commissioned to go and flavour the world with the Gospel in a counter intuitive, counter cultural way, as Gandhi was given the wisdom to do.

Amen

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