by Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz
YOU EITHER LOVE it or you loathe it! What am I talking about? Bacalao, of course! Dried, salted codfish.
Whenever I read the words of Jesus in this Sunday’s portion of the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s Gospel, my taste buds take the lead and somehow it’s bacalao that comes to mind. “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus tells His disciples, “But what if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”
Bacalao starts out as a stiff, salt-encrusted, unyielding hunk of something that only vaguely looks as though it has ever been part of a fish. To render it edible, you have to soak it overnight and rinse it several times (just how many times is a matter of debate).
Only then, when it has been thoroughly de-salted, is it ready for its starring role in a delicious recipe for Puerto Rican-style codfish stew called bacalao guisado, or in a refreshing salad that combines chunks of cod with avocados, tomatoes and onions. Let there be no doubt: I’m a big fan of bacalao, even though I know that for some people, it’s at the very top of the list of “things I’ll never eat again because my mother made me eat it when I was a child.”
The Real Deal
So what does it mean to be “the salt of the earth”? Since it first appeared in Matthew’s Gospel, the phrase has come to be used with positive connotations to describe someone who is the real deal – a decent, dependable, straightforward soul. The Sermon on the Mount marks the beginning of the formation of Jesus’ disciples, a patient and gradual process that moves forward throughout Matthew’s Gospel. As they see the works of their Teacher and listen to His words, they are preparing to become heralds of the Good News, and so Jesus tells them, “your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”
Compliment with an Edge
Yet when the disciples of Jesus first heard Him describing them as the salt of the earth, it may have taken some effort for them to unpack all that he meant by that now-familiar phrase. On the one hand, at the time of Jesus, salt was considered a valuable commodity that was essential to the preservation of food. The thoroughfare called the Via Salaria in Latin – still known by that name today – is the “salt road” that led from Rome to the salt pans near the port of Ostia, from which salt was transported to the imperial capital. The English word “salary” comes from the Latin “salarium,” the stipend paid to Roman soldiers so that they could buy the salt (sal) they needed. So, calling them the salt of the earth was a compliment to the disciples.
On the other hand, it was a compliment with an edge: “but what if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?” Unlike hunks of bacalao that only become fit for human consumption once they have been thoroughly un-salted, having sodium-free disciples (so to speak) would be absolutely worthless, “no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” Ouch!
In every sense, St. Paul too was “the salt of the earth,” a forthright fellow who did not mince words when he addressed the church at Corinth, and who not infrequently resorted to rather salty language when the occasion called for it. In the portion of the Corinthian correspondence we hear as this Sunday’s second reading, Paul is emphatic about what he didn’t bring along when he arrived to proclaim the Good News in Corinth.
“I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom,” he confesses. “I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom.”
Preaching Christ Alone
Paul never ever preached Paul: he insistently proclaimed Christ crucified, so that the faith of the Corinthian community “might not rest on human wisdom, but on the power of God.”
God’s power, Paul insists, is the power of the cross, a power that is made perfect in weakness, in the simplicity of life-giving love.
What would it take for us to deserve to be known as “the salt of the earth”? If the likes of fishermen, like Peter, Andrew, James and John could make it, and if a tax collector like Matthew could make it, what about us? The words of the prophet Isaiah make matters pretty clear: “Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn.”
It’s not a matter of kind thoughts and lofty words but of faith-filled living, generously seasoned by love. It is the plain-spoken Pope Francis who makes it clear what it takes to be a disciple, what it means to be the salt of the earth: “To love God and neighbor is not something abstract, but profoundly concrete: it means seeing in every person the face of the Lord to be served, to serve him concretely.”
Readings for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 58: 7-10
Psalm 112: 4-5, 6-7, 8-9
1 Corinthians 2: 1-5
Matthew 5: 13-16
Father Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University.