“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.” Mark 9:49,50
This passage is weird in a number of ways. First, what does it mean to “salt with fire”? The image that comes to mind is God in Julia Child attire, apron and all, sprinkling the disciples with flames of fire. Which begs the question: is God doing the “seasoning” here, or is someone or something else?
And then there is the issue of how salt can lose its saltiness. I was never good in chemistry, so those of you who were can maybe explain this to me. As incentive I’ll throw in a free subscription to Fellowship of Saints and Sinners.
And what about the whole “have salt in yourselves” command? If someone or something or God is doing the seasoning, how do we “have salt” in ourselves? Do we do this by being at peace with one another? Or, is the being at peace with one another a byproduct, like the finished casserole, of our having salt in ourselves? Or, are these two states of being meant to co-exist? If so, do they co-exist in spite of, or because of, one another?
The encouraging news here is that commentators are asking the same sorts of questions. The less encouraging news is that they differ in their answers. But a general theme that emerges is the purifying and seasoning nature of salt in Jesus’ time. Salt served to flavor not just hummus but the sacrifices that the Jewish priests offered on the altar to God, in keeping with the Levitical command: “Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings (Leviticus 2:13).”
To be salted in this act of worship was essentially to be set aside for God. To be “made holy” or sanctified. To be conscripted for God’s mission to God’s people.
And in this sense Jesus when speaking of “everyone” is directing his remarks primarily to his followers. Elsewhere, for instance, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls his disciples “the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). But I would also add that this statement and its context can be understood more broadly, too, as part of a more universal appeal.
While the “fire” to which Jesus is referring may be the angry flames of persecution that his disciples will soon face, it could also be the hot tongues of hell to which he has just referred in the preceding verses. Hell in Jesus’ time was an actual place just outside the gates of Jerusalem: “Gehenna” was where all of the city’s refuse went to be burned; a big, smoldering garbage dump; it was a metaphor for what happens when we reject God’s love for us. Our lives go up in flames, with all of our “rubbish”- even our best virtues- being burned away. In times like these, God’s Spirit, convicting, encouraging, prodding, pulling us up when we fall, or giving us a good shake, can feel much like the “refiner’s fire and “launderer’s soap” of Malachi 3:3.
So it may be that Jesus is intentionally conflating several “fires” here insofar as they represent the painful clearing away of anything that stands in the way of God’s Love penetrating and transforming our lives. The fire of persecution. The fire of hell. And, the fire of God’s Holy Spirit which at Pentecost appeared in the form of tongues of fire on the heads of the believers. To be salted with each of these fires is to undergo a necessary and painful process at the end of which are left only the gold and silver. Those pure, precious nuggets that shine. That tell a unique story that is necessarily “salty.” A story that contrary to popular stereotypes of Christians these days is never boring.
I made the acquaintance of Frankie this morning at my favorite local coffee shop. Frankie’s tattoos are like chapter markings in a book about his life. There is the knife on his right forearm- a reminder of the time he was stabbed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina while seeking shelter at the Superdome. On his left bicep are red flames over the bold inscription, “Washed by His blood, not by water.” They describe his conversion to Christ.
In Frankie’s case the “refiner’s fire” came in the form of a Category 5 hurricane. Frankie was at The Bourbon Pub, the gay dance club he managed, when Katrina hit. He remembers those seven minutes of kneeling on the floor as the most surreal, terrifying moments of his life. The swat team arrived within minutes, and Frankie found himself being led, wading chest-high through a river of water, to the Superdome. In the days following, this former member of the military joined the rescue squads that would airlift out the vulnerable and wade through waters to look for the stranded and lost. It was during one of these moments that Frankie said a prayer, something along the lines of, “God if you bring me through this safely I will let you love me.”
For many of us it takes a “fire” in the form of a cataclysmic event- if not a hurricane, then a divorce, a breakdown, or bankruptcy- to help us see that our lives exist for One greater than ourselves. That we are not our own but belong to a Love that seeks to ravish us. That in the furnace of hardship and suffering, whatever its source, God is refining us. Making us into people seasoned by experience with stories to share. Each of them particular. Each of them interesting. Each of them with a savory message about how God’s love has found us and is wooing us.
When we “have salt” in ourselves, we are letting that salt be there. This is a hard thing to do. Because it means that we have to get over ourselves. We have to be willing to acknowledge the painful things that have “salted” us and how they made us who we are today. We can’t just pretend these things don’t exist somehow. They are part of our story. They are forming us into people who exist for Love.
Being “salted with fire” is a necessary, unavoidable thing. How we receive it, however, is voluntary. “Having salt” means letting our trials become opportunities for growth and open doors into fuller, more abundant life. “Having salt” means trusting that not just our humanity but our personality and character are undergoing transformation for the better when we find ourselves in the furnace of trial or temptation.
There is nothing boring or replicable about a “salty” person. They are a gem in the ruff. A rare find. One-of-a-kind. A real “mensch.” They know they belong to a kingdom that is not of this world and they live like it. If you have met such people, you can probably count them on one hand.
I’m not exactly sure why Jesus includes this final exhortation to be at peace with one another. Perhaps he knew that too much of anything can be dangerous. Sure, he probably didn’t know that too much salt can cause high blood pressure. But he probably did have a premonition that if his disciples were already arguing only minutes earlier about who was greatest (Mk. 9:34), even their eventual forms of suffering could become easy fodder for more spiritual one-upmanship. It is amazing how we human beings can find just about anything to compete about, and, if truth be told, the early church soon found itself in similar wrangles. The fourth-century Donatists claimed that those who had fallen away from the faith during previous persecutions were not qualified to administer the Sacraments. In their eyes, one’s level of suffering and one’s capacity to endure it were somehow a requirement for priestly ministry. Thankfully, Augustine put an end to this silliness.
“Have salt in yourselves and be at peace,” Jesus says. Let the seasoning be there. Welcome it rather than run from it. And don’t use it to pretend that you are somehow any better than anyone else. Understand that your salt may be different from another person’s; welcome their salt as you welcome your own, as something God is using to season the world. To make God’s love a little more palatable and a little more flavorsome for the rest of us.