Salt is a marvellous ingredient. Judiciously used, it enhances the other flavours. You can taste a stew or soup without salt and find it bland. A touch of salt and hey presto! It brings out the flavours of the other ingredients. So when Jesus uses the image of salt to describe Christians, it symbolises bringing out what is best in the world we serve. Think of another of Jesus’s culinary images, the table of the feast in the great kingdom. All are invited to that table. As enablers, it is the role of Christian men and women to try and make the company at that table as inclusive as possible. The able-bodied and disabled; the poor and the rich; the respectable and those not so respectable; everybody is invited by the Lord. They are invited not only to receive but to contribute also, so that in the company of the Kingdom there are many talents, each working for the good of all. Salt, in action, helping to create a true community.
What are the hallmarks of this kingdom? Jesus, with his theme of light, echoes the third section of Isaiah, written approximately 500 BC and found in our second reading today (Isa. 58.7-10). To feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, to recognise our common humanity – these are marks of a truly caring person. Interestingly, it is also seen as bringing healing to the helpers too – see the reference to ‘your wound will be quickly healed over’ (58.8). We know only too well that when we are wrapped up in ourselves, our misery only increases. When we can forget ourselves enough to help others, often we feel better too.
Reading Isaiah, with his demands for justice, makes us realise how aware we need to be in our complex, global world. Few Christians would feel comfortable putting a yoke on the shoulders of others, as if they were oxen; we would want to banish the clenched fist and the harsh word. But we live in a world where the markets intertwine more and more. We have an endless thirst for consumer goods produced cheaply and en masse. I have read of vast factories in China, where with suicides among the workers who live on site, with shifts keeping the factory going 24/7. I have read of child labour in Bangladesh producing sporting goods for the West. Capitalism has brought enormous rises in living standards in the Third World. I recognise that it has been an engine for change which has dramatically improved the lives of poor people. I know that in response to criticism many factories have improved conditions. But I wonder where it will end. Are there limits to growth? Can we consume more and more? And what is the cost, humanly speaking? Do our consumer goods depend on working conditions that we would never tolerate ourselves? And what does it mean to be salt in this situation?