Are you salty?

But Jesus was a poet

Mark 9:50 Salt is good for seasoning. But if it loses its flavor, how do you make it salty again? You must have the qualities of salt among yourselves and live in peace with each other.

A doctor. A groom. Old cloth and new cloth. Old wineskins and new. Civil war. A farmer, seed, thorns, birds, good and bad soil. A lamp, a basket, and a bed. A mustard seed. Food. A cup of water. A millstone. Salt.

Jesus may not have written poetry per se, but he was a poet. In the first nine chapters of his Gospel, Mark recorded Jesus using all these images. Imagery—described by Ezra Pound as “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time”—is the primary resource of poets, using concrete objects to elicit sensory responses. Imagery, a product of imagination, touches our own imaginations and communicates both more deeply and broadly than simple prose. The more we think about an image, the more we learn from it.

Take salt, for example. We mostly think of salt as providing flavor. In Jesus’s time, though, fish and meat were preserved by drying and salting. It’s still done today. I was surprised our first Christmas in Brazil to see rows of fish hanging from the ceiling of supermarkets or heaped in large bins. I learned this was bacalhau, dried and salted cod. Bacalhau is used in a variety of Brazilian dishes, but it’s now expensive enough to be reserved by most people for special holidays.

Shutterstock: Gail Palethorpe

Salt has also been used since ancient times as a disinfectant. Gargling with salt water can help a sore throat. If you skin your knee while camping and didn’t bring a disinfectant with you, you can clean the wound with salt water. It kills microbes by dehydrating them.

A high school friend of Karis’s once told me that if she approached a group of classmates sometimes one of them would say, “Stay away a minute, Karis. You won’t like this story I’m telling.” Gossip and off-color stories weren’t part of the conversation when she was around. “But,” her friend said, “she was so much fun we loved having her with us. She was always up to something intriguing or mischievous.”

Jesus’s hearers would not have associated being salty with our concept of a “salty conversation,” or reacting to a slight or minor loss in a “salty” manner. These more recent idioms mean the opposite of what Jesus was saying!

We don’t “get” how salt can lose its flavor. But Jesus’s hearers would have known that the salt in the Dead Sea didn’t taste salty. It looked like salt and had other qualities of salt, but it contained gypsum, which altered its flavor.

So how can the qualities of salt help us (and could have helped Jesus’s followers) to live in peace with each other? Adding flavor (the delight of different personalities!), preserving the life-giving dynamics of friendships, cleansing away damaging elements … All this and more (what are your thoughts?) is summed up in one simple poetic image: salt.

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