Historical Cultural Context
Salt of the Earth
Salt and Fires
In the Aramaic language that Jesus spoke the word translated as “earth” can also—and in this passage, culturally more plausibly—be translated as “earth-oven.”
The “earth-oven,” the common stove in Mediterranean villages, was made of mud or clay. The fuel it burned was camel-dung patties, dried and salted so that they would burn better.
Salt has mysterious power. The block of salt on the floor of the earth-oven kept the fire going just as much as the salt crystals in the dung patties.
Eventually a block of salt in the earth-oven loses its catalytic ability and must be thrown out (Mt 5:13). Salt that can no longer burn the fuel or prepare the fuel is useless (Lk 14:34-35).
Salty or Fiery People
Jesus came to light the oven (Lk 12:49), that is, Jesus presents himself as a catalyst. He causes fires to break out, arguments to erupt, families to quarrel and become divided in their opinion of him. He urges his disciples likewise to be catalytic and to do the same thing he does (Mt 5:13; Mk 9:49).
Jesus the "Divisive Catalyst"
Jesus' assertion that he will cause division in families is obviously something above and beyond the normal Mediterranean family and group shenanigans. It is far more serious.
The sharp delineation of social hierarchy that characterized antiquity was rigidly observed by all. No one dared step out of the inherited or assigned place. To do so would be to risk death. One move in this deadly direction would be to socialize with people outside of one's social position.
Contemporaries of Jesus who liked him and decided to follow him would also have to join his fictive family group. “My mother and brothers,” that is, my new, fictive relatives, said Jesus, “are those who hear the word of God and do it!” (Lk 8:21).
To separate oneself from one's family or clan is literally a matter of life and death. Elites, (including the “greedy [rich]” whom Luke so often includes in his Gospel), would lose everything, all their wealth, power, and influence, by associating with the wrong kind of people or joining the wrong kinds of groups.
Joining Jesus' group also jeopardized one's relations with the very large kinship network formed by marriage, a network far larger than the biological family. This is where the in-laws and other such family members enter the picture (Lk 12:52-53).
By demonstrating how to be catalysts for the fire in the earth-oven and summoning us to be and do the same, Jesus challenges American believers.
Our culture takes pride in its faith in God, but we believe religion and politics should not mix. Clergy may pray before legislative sessions and bless conflicts, but criticism and protest are not welcome.
Who among us is salt of the earth?
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University