The Gospel from last Thursday’s daily Mass featured one of Jesus’ lesser-known teachings:
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).
Let’s begin with a few observations about salt in those times.
- Salt was valuable. Some people were even paid with salt (which is where we get the word “salary”).
- Salt was connected with healing and purity. Saltwater was applied to infections and wounds (it helps heal afflictions of the skin). Newborn babies were washed with saltwater.
- Salt was connected with preservation. In the years before refrigeration, salt was one of the most common ways of preserving meat and fish.
- Salt was connected with flavor. Salt adds spice to life; it brings out the flavor in food.
- Salt was an image for wisdom. Gregory the Great said, “Now by salt is denoted the word of wisdom. Let him therefore who strives to speak wisely, fear greatly” (Pastoral Rule 4.12).
- Salt was 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, and afterwards for “all” offerings, including the “burnt offering.”
- 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 to the imperishable and irrevocable quality of the engagement made between the two parties to the covenant.
- The use of salt to signify and ratify what was sacred was widespread. There is a Latin saying attributed to Pliny the Elder (and Virgil, too), Nulla sacra conficiuntur sine mola salsa (Sacred things are not made without salted meal).
To apply the image of salt to the Christian life, we should see that the Christian ischarged with purifying, sanctifying, and preserving this wounded and decaying world by being salt to it. The Christian is called to bring flavor to life in a world that is so often filled with despair and meaninglessness.
With that background, let’s turn to an analysis of Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Mark.
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. 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.
Read more at Archdiocese of Washington.