“The Salt Of The Earth” In Covenantal Perspective -- By: Don Garlington
JETS 54:4 (December 2011) p. 715
“The Salt Of The Earth” In Covenantal Perspective
* Don Garlington resides at 59 Shoredale Drive, Toronto, ON M1G 3T1, Canada.
Jesus’ celebrated pronouncement that his disciples are “the salt of the earth” (Matt 5:13) has become proverbial for persons considered to be fine, upstanding citizens, applauded for their contributions to the communities of which they are members. As is normally the case with biblical sayings that make their way into common parlance, this one, too, seems to be invoked without any real awareness of its original significance. In the instance of this particular logion, however, the irony is that the conventional (secular) wisdom is not so far from the truth. Interpreters have frequently understood salt as a metaphor for preservation, in the sense that Jesus’ followers prevent society from degenerating into something worse than it already is. It is in contrast to this more or less negative function of salt that the ensuing essay argues for a more positive reading of the figure. That is to say, believers as “the salt of the earth,” rather than performing a chiefly preventive function, assume an activist role of making the world better than it was before, with, no less, eternal ramifications. How this can be is comprehensible in terms of the scriptural and traditional roles of salt as predicated by Jesus of his servants.
Like most biblical ideas nowadays, the notion of salt has come in for its share of study,1 so that commentators may avail themselves of a variety of possibilities for explaining its presence in Matt 5:13 and associated texts. W. D. Davies and Dale Allison enumerate no less than eleven options, but
JETS 54:4 (December 2011) p. 716
then conclude that “it is quite impossible to decide what one characteristic is to the fore in Mt 5.13.”2 Nevertheless, I would submit that exegetical certainty is not so hopeless after all, though Davis and Allison are right that no one characteristic takes center stage.3 In terms of the actual biblical data, the following study will argue that there are four central and overlapping notions that stand out,4 all of which in unison inform our understanding of Christians as “the salt of the earth.” In every instance, it is the biblical idea of covenant that provides the cohesive factor. In short, salt is a covenantal concept. In seed f...
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