Today’s gospel reading is super troubling if you are in “biblical literalist mode”. If your hand causes you to sin, you are instructed to cut it off. If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.
What am I supposed to do with this?
This kind of radical self-sacrifice is very curious, literally laming one for the work ahead. The last verse provides some help to the context. “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
Well this passage once and for all puts to rest the biblical literalists’ arguments – for if they really meant what they said the world would be full of lame people with no hands, eating teaspoon after teaspoon of salt because the passage says “have salt in yourselves.” Well, we all know it is much deeper than that, a metaphor for radical discipleship and self-sacrifice.
In our fast food nation it is difficult to see the meaning of these words. We think of salt as something to season our food to enhance the flavor. In biblical times it was too precious to be wasted like this. Salt was used for pickling, in a time when there was no refrigeration. Salt was a necessary preservative in a land where drought could go on for years, and stores of food were essential. If something was not salted, not preserved, it could go bad quickly. So here, salt has a duel metaphorical purpose – for sacrifice as well as preservation.
We must preserve our bodies and spirits against the temptations of sin. We must keep ourselves salted in the Lord, salted in the Spirit, and salted in the fire. Purity for the sake of peace becomes an important key. Pickle ourselves? No, preserve ourselves so we can endure!
This all comes in the midst of a number of stories amplifying our imperfection. The disciples are squabbling over who is the greatest. And following this passage is a dealing about divorce.
Jesus is encountering the broken world, and witnessing the stumbling blocks of humanity. The point is to more than just pepper our lives with good will and humility, but to literally change our very make up, change our lives (that’s what pickling does), and live into a self-sacrificial life where individual physical essentials are secondary to the community’s need for peace and understanding.
In a world where most of Jesus’ concepts of new life are foreign and contrary to American ideals, we are challenged as New Testament people to step into a new life in Christ, where the norms of society are turned upside-down. We are challenged to live out our baptisms, which call us to die to ourselves, and take up a life past the grave, which looks out on the horizon and embraces a new order – one with limitless possibilities of grace and peace.