By: Msgr. Charles Pope
Archdiocese of Washington
There are a few lines at the end of today’s gospel that I would account as among the lesser known sayings of Jesus. They occur at the end of Mark 9:
“Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if salt becomes insipid, with what will you restore its flavor? Keep salt in yourselves and you will have peace with one another.” (Mark 9:49-50)
Some argue that these were separate sayings of Jesus just stitched together here, but I think otherwise. The who logic of the saying seems cogent and unified to me.
Perhaps a few observations about salt are first in order and then a look at the fuller saying here.
1. First of all salt was valuable. Some were even paid with salt (which is where we get the word salary).
2. Salt was connected with healing and purity. Saltwater was applied to infections and wounds. It helps heal affliction of the skin. New Born babies were washed salt water, etc.
3. Salt was connected with preservation. In the years before refrigeration salt was one of the commonest ways to preserve meat and fish.
4. Salt was connected with flavor. It adds spice to life, it brings out the flavor in a food.
5. Salt was also connected with worship and covenant. Scripture says, 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. (Lev 2:13) So, the use of salt was ordered first for the meal offerings, afterwards it was ordered for “all” offerings, including the “burnt offering:”
6. Scripture speaks elsewhere of a “Covenant of Salt.” For example, Don’t you know that the LORD, the God of Israel, has given the kingship of Israel to David and his descendants forever by a covenant of salt? (2 Chron 13:5) “The covenant of salt” refers the imperishable and irrevocable quality of the engagement made between the two parties to the covenant.
7. The use of salt to signify and ratify what was sacred was widespread in ancient culture. There is a Latin attested by Pliny the Elder and Virgil too: Nulla sacra conficiuntur sine mola salsa (Sacred things are not made without salted meal).
And all these things are caught up in Jesus’ use of salt as an image. Sadly today salt, a necessary ingredient for life, has been demonized as almost a poison. But none of this thinking was operative in ancient minds.
To apply the image of salt to the Christian life we should see that the Christian is to purify, sanctify and preserve this wounded and decaying world by being salt to it. The Christian is to bring flavor to life in a world that is so often filled with despair and meaninglessness.
And now we turn to Jesus’ words:
1. Everyone will be salted with fire - two images of salt and fire come together here, but the result is the same, purification. We have already seen how salt purifies. And fire does the same thing through the refining process. Precious metals come from the ground admixed with iron and many other metals. Subjecting them to fire purifies the gold or silver separating it from the iron and other metals.
Both salt and fire purify by burning, each in their own way. Hence the Lord marvelously brings both images together telling us that we will all be “salted with fire.”
And indeed, it must be so. We must all be purified. Scripture says of heaven, Nothing impure will ever enter it (Rev 21:27). And thus St. Paul speaks of purgatorial fire to effect what ever purification has not taken place here on earth:
If anyone builds on this foundation [of Christ] using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—yet as one escaping through the flames. (1 Cor 3:15-15)
And the Book of Malachi also reminds us of our need to be purified, to be “salted with fire:”
But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. (Mal 3:2-3)
Yes, we must all be salted with fire, we must be purified, both here, and if necessary (as it likely will be) in purgatory.
2. Salt is good, but if salt becomes insipid, with what will you restore its flavor? – In other words, we have to let the salt of God’s grace have its effects or we, who are to salt for others, become flat, tasteless and good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot (cf Matt 5:13).
What does it mean that salt goes flat? We are not used to salt going flat. But salt in the ancient world was frequently less pure. It came from the sea and was admixed with other things. And, as the compound broke down the salt could go flat (tasteless) or become bitter. In this case it was useless except as pavement.
The image is a powerful portrait of a Christian who has become debased, flat. The fall is steep: from a worthy, esteemed, necessary and helpful place (like good salt) to ignoble pavement trampled unappreciated beneath the feet of people, people they should have blessed with savor and sweetness. And thus Jesus says, if salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot (Matt 5:13)
Alas, consider the condition of this world because so many Catholics stepped back from being salt and light. Increasingly the world is therefore hell-bound and sin-soaked as never before.
And the contempt for Christians, Catholics in particular, of the world has indeed reduced us to less than pavement dust in their estimation. We can lament their lack of appreciation for our faith, but a lot of it is due to our own lack of saltiness. Salt gone flat is good for nothing, nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. Right or wrong, fair or unfair, this world thinks of us as flat and bitter to the taste.
We have a lot of work to do to recapture our role of adding spice and flavor to life. The good, the true, and the beautiful must be reintegrated to the lives of Catholics who have too easily cast them aside.
Fr. Robert Barron speaks of 70s Catholicism as the era of “beige Catholicism” where all the zest, color, edginess, and zeal of the Catholic faith was painted over and Catholics sought to blend in, even disappear. Welcome to the results of “salt gone flat” Catholicism. Little by little we must recover our salt, our zest, pep and even stinging quality. Flat Catholics are good for nothing.
And if the salt will not be salt, there is no salt-substitute for it. Thus Jesus asks rhetorically: if salt becomes insipid, with what will you restore its flavor? Again there is no substitute for Christians. If we will not be light, the world is in darkness. If we will not be salt the world will not be purified, preserved, or have anything good or tasty about it at all. The decay of Western culture happened on our watch when we collectively decided to stop being salt and light.
3. Keep salt in yourselves and you will have peace with one another. - In other words, allow the salt, allow the purification to have its effect. And only if we do this will we have peace with one another.
Our divisions and lack of peace are caused by our sins. Thus, to accept the purification of being salted with fire is our only true hope for peace. When the Lord burns away my envy, I no longer resent your gifts, I rejoice in them and come to appreciate that I need you to complete me. Thus there is peace. When the Lord burns away my jealously and greed and helps me be grateful for what I have, I no longer desire to take what is rightly yours, neither do I resent you for having it. And there is peace. When the Lord burns away my bitter memories of past hurts and gives me the grace to forgive, an enormous amount of poison goes out of my soul and I am equipped to love, be kind, generous and patient. And there is peace.
Yes, allowing ourselves to be salted with fire is a source of peace for us. And while we may resist the pain of fire and salt, just like any stinging medicine we must learn that is it good for us, painful though it is. Yes, it brings peace, it ushers in shalom.
Everyone will be (must be) salted with fire!
Here are some photos from saltier times. I do not idealize them, but there was a time when Catholics stood out and were anything but beige, a time when, as Belloc says, “In Catholic countries the sun doth shine, and there is music and good red wine. At least I have always thought it so, Benedicamus Domino.”