Salt and Light: Random Mass Musings

Best quote of the homily: when things start going wrong,

Don’t take the Ostrich as your patron saint.

Things I wondered about during the gospel:

can salt lose its flavor?
– and if it does, is it still good for melting snow as we trample it underfoot?

And of course, I can never hear this gospel reading without also hearing this:

Godspell generation, represent!

We sang a lot of Godspell when I was in junior high, and our school image — not a literal picture, but our self-understanding — was that of the city set on a hill.

I can’t find a recording of the (non-Godspell) song we sang at the closing of almost every prayer service, but the music was almost as simple as the text:

We’re called
to be that city, We’re called
to be that city, We’re called
to be that city,
We’re called to be that light

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6 Responses to Salt and Light: Random Mass Musings

  1. Brant says:

    I have read various explanations of how salt can lose its saltiness but none of them has me convinced. They have all seemed too clever by half. Personally I think that Jesus was intentionally using an absurd example. The idea of salt becoming unsalty is as ridiculous as lighting a lamp and putting a bushel over it.

    Like you, I can’t read this morning’s Gospel without hearing Godspell.

    You’ve got to stay pretty in the city of God.

    • Yes, but you *can* light a lamp and put a bushel over it.

      I wonder.. is there any way the Greek might be read as similar to the English subjunctive? Because if it said

      But if salt were to lose its taste, with what could it be seasoned? It would no longer good for be anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

      then it would make sense.

      If I set aside my understanding that salt is NaCl, and think analogously of other things that have a sharp flavor but can lose them — which is certainly true of other herbs and spices that are used to flavor food! — then I can imagine that salt might lose its flavor by getting old or overused.

      • Brant says:

        Here are two explanations for salt losing its saltiness.

        First, notes in the Catholic Bible and the NIV Study Bible suggest that the salt from the Dead Sea was chemically impure and could, in fact, lose its flavor. They don’t say whether it is still useful for roads and sidewalks.

        Second, Malina and Rohrbaugh in their Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels claim that the “earth” is an outdoor earthen oven fueled by dung. The dung heap was salted and “salt plates” were used “as a catalyst to make the dung burn.” Spent salt plates were thrown away, not even useful for salting the dung heap.

        I would need more evidence to find either of these explanations convincing.

        As to whether Matthew 5:13 could be construed as a subjunctive, I would have to say “yes.” The verb translated “lose its flavor” (μωρανθῇ, moranthe) is an aorist, passive, subjunctive. Last week I translated the verse: “”You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt should become insipid, how will it be made salty? It is worth nothing except to be thrown outside and trampled underfoot by people.”

  2. Andrew says:

    The passage about the salt of the earth always reminds me of this joke “Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says “Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.” Man bursts into tears. Says “But, doctor…I am Pagliacci.” (This is the version from Watchmen, but I’m sure that the original joke predates that).

    In both cases, the ultimate source of some great value (flavor in the case of salt, joy in the case of the clown) loses its power to deliver that value, leaving the world without any other place to go for flavor or joy.

    “Who is the land for, the sun and the sand for; you guessed, it’s all for the best!”
    PS. Also a fan of Dreamcoat…

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