Homily for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A.
One of the things that surprised me when I started to watch a lot of cooking shows, is just how much salt is used to prepare a restaurant-quality dish. For many dishes, salt is added at every stage of the cooking process. To make a simple pasta and red sauce, for example, salt is added to the sauce at the beginning of its preparation, and then corrected for salt at the end. The pasta is then boiled in salted water. Once the pasta and sauce are combined, a salty cheese like Parmesan or Pecorino Romano is often added on top. Salt at the beginning, salt in the middle, salt at the end.
Salt, as we know, is used to enhance flavor. You salt something, not so that you can taste the salt itself, but that you can more clearly taste the natural flavors of the food you’re preparing. If you can only taste the salt, you’ve probably added too much; if you can’t taste the food, you’ve probably added too little. Salt is also used for the purpose of preservation, in order to maintain the quality of the food over time and prevent the growth of what is bad.
These are the obvious things that come to mind when Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth.” Like salt, we are called to preserve what is good in the world, prevent the growth of what is bad, and take what is good and make it better. “To enhance and preserve,” would be the motto of Christian discipleship based on this part of our gospel.
The less obvious meaning of Jesus’ saying, “You are the salt of the earth,” has to do with a role salt played in the Jewish system of sacrifices. In the Old Testament, God commanded the Jews to offer different kinds of sacrifices. One of these was called a cereal offering. In Leviticus 2:13, we find this command: “You shall season all your cereal offerings with salt; you shall not let the salt of the covenant with your God be lacking from your cereal offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.”
The image that comes to mind when hearing this, is someone salting their morning bowl of Frosted Flakes or Lucky Charms. But a cereal offering in the Old Testament was an offering of bread, often accompanied by wine. Bread and wine would be placed on the altar, and offered to God as a sacrifice and as a sacred banquet.
At every Mass bread and wine are brought forward and placed on this altar. They are offered to God as a sacrifice and as a sacred banquet. But the question is, “Where is the salt?” The New Testament doesn’t abolish the Old Testament; it fulfills it. “With all your offerings you shall offer salt,” we read in the Old Testament. How is this, then, fulfilled in the New Testament?
Every time we come to Mass, we bring salt with us. That’s true regardless of how much sodium is in our diet. “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says. When we come to Mass, we are invited to offer ourselves as a sacrifice to God along with the bread and wine; we are invited, as it were, to place ourselves on the altar.
Interestingly, the word “salary” in English is derived from the Latin word for salt, which is “sal.” In ancient Rome, according to some historians, soldiers were sometimes given a portion of salt in addition to, or in replacement of, their usual compensation. This was called a “salarium” in Latin; in English, a “salary.” So we might think of the financial contributions we make during Mass, the portions of our “salary,” as part of the salt we offer to God. When the gifts are brought forward, there is not only bread and wine, but also “salt,” in the form of our monetary offerings.
But Jesus is less concerned with the “salary” we bring to Mass in terms of money, than He is with the “salary” we bring to Mass in terms of our good deeds. The good deeds that we did this week, which are meant to give glory to the Father, are the salt that we bring with us to every Mass. And so the question is, “What did we do this week to be the salt of the earth? What did we do to enhance and preserve God’s goodness in the world around us?”
The Sacrifice of the New Covenant, like the sacrifices of the Old Covenant, is not meant to be offered without salt. We are the salt of the New Covenant, and it’s up to us to ensure that the gifts which we offer at every Mass, are not offered without salt. And so, as the bread and wine are placed on the altar at this Mass, let us also place our good deeds as well. Amen.