“You are the salt of the earth…” Matt. 5:13
Ask any hardcore coffee addict how to reduce the afternoon bitterness of this morning’s reheated coffee and they’ll tell you to add a pinch of salt. Go ahead, ask them. Now I’m not talking about those precious persons who just crave the Koolaid coffee whipped up at Fourbucks. You’ve gotta ask one of us who think that stale, two day old “cup o’ joe” that has an oil slick on top is better than no coffee at all. Ask the guy three cubicles down who doesn’t trust java that isn’t chewy. (Hey, my name’s Joe and I wrote “cup o’ joe”! That’s gotta be some literary something or other.)
Coffee neophytes try to cut the bitterness with sugar. They add a teaspoon, they take a sip, they pucker up, they snap their head like a wet Jack Russell Terrier, then vainly add another teaspoon of sugar. It’s hopeless. Sugar doesn’t remove bitterness. The best it can do is cover it up but more often than not it you just end up with bitter tasting, muddy water with “sandy” sugar crystals at the bottom of the cup.
Most people are surprised to learn that desert recipes call for some sugar and salt. It sounds counterintuitive to add salty to a sweet, but it’s true.
Still not convinced. Here’s an experiment that I found in the New York Times that you can try yourself:
Get a bottle of tonic water. Take a taste. The bitterness is quinine, a compound derived from bark of the cinchona tree. There’s also a bit of sweetness from sugar or corn syrup added to offset the bitterness.
Add a bit of salt to the bottle. Take another taste. “It’s almost like sugar water,” Ms. Corriher said. “You taste a little quinine, but it’s just the change is amazing, how the salt suppresses bitterness.”
Surprisingly, salt suppresses bitterness better than sugar. That is why some people sprinkle salt on grapefruit, cantaloupe and other fruit.
Often we try, with no effect, to take away the bitterness of life with sweetness. By “sweetness” I mean covering up the bitterness or going out of our way to avoid the bitterness. Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth…” Have you ever tried to comfort someone by piling platitudes and trite cliche’s on life’s tragedies just to be rebuffed or at best ignored? We’re not the “sugar of the earth,” we’re “salt”.
Only a few sentences earlier in the Beatitudes Jesus says, “Blessed are they that mourn for they will be comforted.” Echoing this point, Paul speaks of mourning in Romans 12:15 “…mourn with those that mourn.” Who will be comforted? Those that mourn, not those that try to cover it up or ignore it. How should we respond to those that mourn, those that hurt? Mourn with them. Not in the way that the world mourns, but with a hope.
But salt shouldn’t be “salty.” It takes just a pinch of salt, just a little bit. We often fail in comforting, taking the bitter away, because we use either too much salt or sweetness. Being the “salt of the earth” doesn’t mean being an abrasive, cantankerous “ol’ salt.” Just as Jesus doesn’t say, “you are the sugar of the earth;” He also doesn’t say, “be salty.” Being “salty” just breeds legalism and, conversely, coating life with sugary syrup doesn’t allow the real issues of hurt to be addressed.
As those who are set apart for the glory of God, those who practice insurgent love behind enemy lines, we must set our strategy for each day; a strategy that asks, “who will I not leave with a bitter taste in their mouth? Who will I be salt for today? Who’s life will I make less bitter by being the ‘salt of the earth?'”