[HOLD UP SALTSHAKER] Recognize this? Right, it’s a saltshaker, about half-full of salt. I’d be willing to bet that most of you have one at home, and a box or two of salt besides what’s in the shaker. It’s just common, ordinary stuff. Would you believe that this is one of the driving forces of history?
Well, the journalist and writer Mark Kurlansky would, which is why he wrote the book Salt: A World History. Granted that this is the same guy who thought it would be a good idea to write a children’s book about cod, it still tells you something about the historical importance of salt that he could spend 500 pages writing about it. He may overstate his case—I doubt, for instance, that the destruction of the great kingdom of Poland was due to German production of sea salt—but there’s no denying that he’s right about the importance and value of salt in the ancient world. For our culture, too much salt is the problem, but that’s an issue peculiar to our modern era; for most of human history, the problem was not having enough. To the Romans, salt was so valuable that they paid their soldiers’ wages partly with salt—since their word for salt was sal, they called this the salarium, from which we get our word “salary.” And one of the justifications Thomas Jefferson used for the Lewis and Clark expedition was a mountain of salt which was supposed to be somewhere along the Missouri River.
So why was salt so valuable? Well, there were a number of reasons, as there were a number of important uses for salt. First off, it was one of the primary means of preserving food. If you were rich enough and lived close enough to the mountains, you could have ice packed down from the peaks and use that to keep food cold, but that wasn’t available to most people. In some parts of the world, meat would be smoked to help preserve it, but smoking wasn’t (and isn’t) sufficient by itself; foods could also be dried, but for many foods, drying and salting went together, while others were salted without being dried. Salt was valued because it preserves other things of value—namely, food.
Second, connected with this, salt was seen as a purifying agent; that’s reflected in our passage from 2 Kings. The water at Jericho was bad, and so the crops didn’t grow well; the tradition was that when Joshua cursed the city after its defeat, that he had cursed the water. When the people of the city brought their plaint to Elisha, he purified the water by throwing salt in it. Now, this is clearly presented as a miracle, not as a mere chemical reaction—this is something the Lord has done; the salt is symbolic. Nevertheless, the symbol was of great importance, as the Hebrews took symbolism much more seriously than we do, and accorded symbols a much greater degree of significance; it was through the salt, and the act of throwing it in the water, that the Lord purified the water.
Third, salt gives flavor; it’s the most basic of all spices, because it not only gives its own flavor but intensifies other flavors, bringing them out. Thus Job asks, as he protests both the terrible things which have happened to him and his friends’ insistence that they must be God’s judgment on him for his sin, “Can that which is tasteless be eaten without salt?” This is a rhetorical question, an appeal to a proverbial truth, and the expected answer is, of course, “No.” No, you need salt to bring flavor to food. (You might be thinking we’ve taken poor Job just a little out of context here, but not really. We’ll come back to him later.) Without salt, food doesn’t have the taste, the savor, that it should have—it’s too bland, even tasteless.
Now, we might add a couple other things to this. One, though it’s not exactly what you’d call a use of salt, we know that salt causes thirst—that’s the reason for beer nuts. Salt attracts water; salty food pulls the water right out of the tissues of your mouth, so that you need to drink more to make up for that. The biblical writers don’t seem to have had reason to do anything with that fact, but they must have been aware of it. Two, salt is an irritant—if you rub salt in a wound, you increase the pain, as the salt goes to work on those damaged tissues. The bottom line here is that when you put salt on anything living (or recently living, like a dead fish), it doesn’t just lie there and do nothing; as one commentator put it, “Whatever salt is applied to, it invariably penetrates.” It’s active, it sinks in, it goes to work—to preserve, to purify, to dry, to flavor.
It’s in that light that we must understand Paul’s command to the Colossians: “Let your conversation always be filled with grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” He first says this very straightforwardly—“Let your speech always be filled with grace”—but maybe that feels too generic, it’s not vivid enough, so he follows it up by saying the same thing another way: “Let it be salty.” Now, Paul didn’t invent that image; in secular writers of the time, for speech to be salty meant it was witty and entertaining, not boring or insipid—it had a zing and a kick to it. Here, of course, the salt is not wit, but grace, and so we need to consider what that means.
First, grace should be a purifying influence in our speech. When the people of Jericho told Elisha that the water was bad, he told them to bring him a new bowl full of salt, and he threw salt in the water to make it pure and wholesome; and grace should have the same effect on our speech. The thought here is the same as Ephesians 4:29, where Paul writes, “Don’t let any unwholesome or corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may give grace to those who hear.” Let the salt of grace purify and preserve your speech, Paul is saying, so that nothing which is unwholesome, nothing which would tend to tear other people down or lead them into sin, corrupts your words. Only say things which are appropriate to the people you’re talking to; give people the responses which will build them up in Christ, and do so only in ways which will give them grace. If your words won’t give others an experience of the grace of God, then be quiet until you can say something that will.
It’s worth noting that this reflects back to some of the things Paul said to “put off” back in chapter 3—“anger, outbursts of temper, malice, slander, abusive language, and lying.” None of these build people up, or attract them toward holy living; they’re destructive, tending either to batter people down or to undermine them and destroy their foundation, bringing them down from within. Just as important, they don’t build us up, either; these ways of speaking teach us to view those around us not with the eyes of God as people to be loved and cared for, supported and encouraged, but with the eyes of the devil as competitors and challengers to be beaten and humiliated—and that’s destructive to our spirits. Anger is sometimes appropriate, but even then, if it’s left unchecked, it’s terribly corrosive; malice, hatred, abusive language and lies are pure spiritual poison. The salt of grace works against them, cleansing their toxic effects from our speech.
Of course, that’s not the only effect of speech salted with grace; it doesn’t only purify our words, it also purifies the lives of those with whom we speak. This isn’t just a matter of not saying bad things which will hurt people, it’s also about taking care to say things which will give them grace and build them up. Graceless words drive people away from God; grace-full words draw people toward him. Grace-full words, words of love and forgiveness, compassion and understanding, give hope; graceless words that cut and condemn and belittle give only despair. Grace-full words give people the energy to attack their sin and the hope of victory, where graceless words take away hope, driving people to give up and give in. As such, to speak without grace is the most counterproductive thing we can do; if we want people to grow, to address the sin issues in their lives and overcome those things which hold them back, we need to set aside temper and all such things, and seek to give grace to those who need it. Yes, that means offering it to those who we’re sure don’t deserve it, but as God says, that’s why it’s called grace.
That’s not just a matter of what we say, either; it’s also a matter of how we say it. Salt doesn’t only purify and preserve, it also gives flavor, making food palatable. As Christians, the dominant “flavor” in our speech should be the grace of God. This goes beyond our words to our tones of voice, facial expressions, body language, and so on. If our words speak grace, but everything else communicates anger, disappointment, or judgment, the effect will be graceless. Sara will tell you that this is an area in which I can speak from experience, because I’ve had to learn the hard way; people need to be able to feel grace from us before they’ll be able to hear grace.
This is particularly important for those times when we need to confront people with their sin and challenge them to change. Most of the time, people don’t want to be corrected, and most people don’t take it all that well when you tell them something they don’t want to hear. And yet, Paul makes it clear in chapter 3 of this letter, verse 16, that this too is part of our responsibility to our brothers and sisters in Christ, and one which we need to be faithful to exercise as part of loving them with the love of Christ. If we’re going to be able to do that—not just effectively, but at all—then we need that savor of salt, the savor of grace, in our words if we want them to swallow what we have to say.
This, I think, is where Job comes in, as an example of how not to deal with people. He’s been living a godly life, and now he’s suffered more calamities and disasters than any one person should ever have to bear, he doesn’t deserve what’s happened to him—and when he opens his mouth to lament, to give voice to his suffering, his friends say, “Stop complaining, stop pretending this isn’t your fault, and accept that this is God’s judgment on you for your unrighteousness.” There’s no grace in their words—there’s no effort to address Job in the midst of his agony as a human being, rather than as an abstract theological problem—and so there is nothing in what they have to say which makes his disaster any easier to take. “Can that which is tasteless be eaten without salt?” No. Of course, there’s also the fact that Job’s friends were wrong, but his words don’t just apply to false counselors; can that which is unpleasant—namely, correction and rebuke—be swallowed without the salt of grace? Not easily, and sometimes, not at all.
Now, as we talk about this, we need to remember that salt has a sting to it, and sometimes people won’t react positively to that sting. There are those who are actively resisting grace, and so even if our speech is seasoned with grace, sometimes people will respond with anger, hostility and derision anyway—indeed, precisely because we’ve shown them grace. Most people don’t react that way most of the time, but there are always some who do; when that happens, the challenge is not to respond in kind, not to let our own tempers flare and our hurt feelings take over, but to continue to show them grace even when they clearly don’t want any part of it. It’s when we can respond in that way that we are most clearly showing the world the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who forgave his killers even as they were crucifying him; it’s in those moments that his self-sacrificing love shows through most clearly to the people around us.
This is our calling as Christians: to speak grace to those who need it, which is everybody. To speak grace to our brothers and sisters in the church, and never more than when they’re doing wrong and need to be set right; to speak grace to those outside the church, to a world that feels its need for grace but too often doesn’t want to admit that need, much less accept it. It’s to speak grace, precisely in those times and to those people that make it hardest to do so—because when we least want to offer grace is exactly when grace is most needed, and most real, and most truly grace. Grace by its very nature is undeserved, and so the fact that it’s undeserved is no reason not to offer it—rather, it’s the very condition which makes it necessary. Speak grace, because we too live only by grace; we too are undeserving, though we often find it easy to forget that uncomfortable fact. Speak grace, because it’s by the grace of God in Christ—and only by that grace, in the power of his Holy Spirit—that hearts are changed and lives made new.