Salty Language

Over ten thousand feet above sea level in central Peru it was surprising to find a whole industry dedicated to the production of salt. The Maras salt pans go back over a millennium to the Chanapata culture. As this civilisation gave way to the Inca Empire, they continued to provide their distinctive pink salt far and wide. At such a distance from the sea, and at such altitude, the steady supply of salt seems miraculous. Long ago, this land was below the sea and left salt hidden in the hills. A spring which runs through the complex of underground passages this enables the striking ‘pink gold’ to be extracted from the small stream that emerges above the pans. The rights to salt production are handed down through the generations, back to a time now lost to memory, with tourism adding further value to the enterprise. It is hard work, but the rewards can be significant.

Photo by Roger Duran on

For all of my life salt has been readily available and cheap. This was not always the case and for most of human history salt has been a precious commodity. In the Roman Empire it was taxed, and served a wide variety of uses – religious sacrifice, medicinal, fish preservation and, of course, the seasoning of food. Like anything that is taxed, this also made salt political. In Matthew chapter five, when Jesus says ‘you are the salt of the earth’, it follows only a few verses after the calling of the first disciples. In a way largely missed today, the leap from those involved in fishing, to an image of salt, was entirely natural. Everyone was connected to salt in some way; and no one doubted its value.

In the Jewish Scriptures there are intriguing references to the ‘covenant of salt’. In the various covenants God made, such as with Noah and Abraham, there is a theme of constancy (at least on God’s part). Probably due to its properties of preservation, salt was often used for these moments of commitment. In Numbers 18:19 we hear about the relationship of God to the people as ‘a covenant of salt forever before the Lord for you and your descendants’. A commitment made in salt was expected to endure.

In Greek and Latin the words for ‘salt’ also carry the sense of wit and sparkle. Salt put the zest into a meal, transforming the plain into the delicious. As an image used by Jesus (‘salt of the earth’) to address the crowds who came to hear him, it suggests that those who are alive to God should be the people changing the taste of living. Like the image of yeast used by Jesus, this isn’t about changing what would become the Christian Church, but about how the baptised are called to transform the world.

is it really the salt
that really matters
or is it the bitterness
that wakes us up
and lets us know
what this life is all

Ric Bastasa, 2009, The Salt of the Earth

Salt is undoubtedly a powerful and necessary part of our lives, but it is not benign. We talk about ‘rubbing salt into the wound’. When we distrust what we are being told we ‘take it with a pinch of salt’. Spilling it is seen by many as bad luck. The language about salt reminds us that anything significant can be used for good or ill. As Ric Bastasa conveys in his poem, we can spend too long wondering about the salt – and not enough time thinking about the changes it brings. Portrayed as the salt of the earth, the crowd was being encouraged to preserve its sparkle; never to lose its wit and flavour. Jesus may be suggesting – by comparison – that the religious leaders had grown bland and stale: ‘but if salt has lost its taste… It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot’. Without the responsibility to enliven others these leaders had failed in their calling: to enable people to be God’s salt for the world.

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