Mark 9:49-50

THE SALT OF THE CHRISTIAN LIFE

Mk. 9:49-50

Everyone must be salted with fire, Salt is good, but, if the salt has become saltless, with what will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and so live at peace with each other.

These three verses are amongst the most difficult in the New Testament. The commentators produce scores of different interpretations. The interpretation will become easier if we remember something we have already had cause to note. Often Jesus dropped pithy sayings which stuck in men’s minds because they could not possibly forget them. But often, although men remembered the saying, they did not remember the occasion on which it was said. The result is that we often get a series of quite disconnected sayings of Jesus set together because they stuck in the writer’s mind in that order.

Here is an instance of this. We will not make sense of these two verses at all unless we recognize that here we have three quite separate sayings of Jesus which have nothing to do with each other. They came together in the compiler’s mind and stuck there together in this order because they all contain the word salt. They are a little collection of sayings of Jesus in which he used salt in various ways as metaphor or illustration. AD this is to say that we must not try to find some remote connection between these sayings. We must take them individually and interpret each as it comes.

(i) Everyone must be salted by fire. According to the Jewish Law every sacrifice must be salted with salt before it was offered to God on the altar (Lev.2:13). That sacrificial salt was called the salt of the covenant (Num.18:19; 2Chr.13:5). It was the addition of that salt which made the sacrifice acceptable to God, and which his covenant law laid down as necessary. This saying of Jesus will then mean, “Before a Christian life becomes acceptable to God it must be treated with fire just as every sacrifice is treated with salt.” The fire is the salt which makes the life acceptable to God.

What does that mean? In ordinary New Testament language, fire has two connections.

(a) It is connected with purification. It is the fire which purifies the base metal; the alloy is separated and the metal left pure. Fire then will mean everything which purifies life, the discipline by which a man conquers his sin, the experiences of life which purify and strengthen the sinews of the soul. In that case this will mean, “The life which is acceptable to God is the life which has been cleansed and purified by the discipline of Christian obedience and Christian acceptance of the guiding hand of God.”

(b) Fire is connected with destruction. In that case this saying will have to do with persecution. It will mean that the life which has undergone the trials and hardships and perils of persecution is the life which is acceptable to God. The man who has voluntarily faced the danger of the destruction of his goods and the destruction of his own life because of his loyalty to Jesus Christ is the man who is dear to God.

We may take this first saying of Jesus to mean that the life which is purified by discipline and has faced the danger of persecution because of its loyalty is the sacrifice which is precious to God.

(ii) Salt is good, but if the salt has become saltless, with what will you season it? This is an even harder saying to interpret. We would not say that there are no other possible interpretations, but we would suggest that it may be understood on the following lines. Salt has two characteristic virtues. First, it lends flavour to things. An egg without salt is an insipid thing. Anyone knows how unpleasant many a dish is when the salt which should have been included is accidentally omitted in the preparation. Second, salt was the earliest of all preservatives. To keep a thing from going rotten salt was used. The Greeks used to say that salt acted like a soul in a dead body. Dead meat left to itself went bad, but, pickled in salt, it retained its freshness. The salt seemed to put a kind of life into it. Salt defended against corruption.

Now the Christian was sent into a heathen society to do something for it. Heathen society had two characteristics. First, it was bored and world-weary. The very luxuries and excesses of that ancient world were a proof that in its bored weariness it was looking for some thrill in a life from which all thrill had gone. As Matthew Arnold wrote,

“On that hard pagan world, disgust And secret loathing fell; Deep weariness and sated lust Made human life a hell. In his cool hall, with haggard eyes, The Roman noble lay; He drove abroad in furious guise Along the Appian Way; He made a feast, drank fierce and fast, And crowned his hair with flowers– No easier nor no quicker passed The impracticable hours.”

Into that bored and weary world Christianity came, and it was the task of the Christian to impart to society a new flavour and a new thrill as salt does to the dish with which it is used.

Second, that ancient world was corrupt. No one knew that better than the ancients themselves. Juvenal likened Rome to a filthy sewer. Purity was gone and chastity was unknown. Into that corrupt world Christianity came, and it was the task of the Christian to bring an antiseptic to the poison of life, to bring a cleansing influence into that corruption. Just as salt defeated the corruption which inevitably attacked dead meat, so Christianity was to attack the corruption of the world.

So then in this saying Jesus was challenging the Christian. “The world,” he said, “needs the flavour and the purity that only the Christian can bring. And if the Christian himself has lost the thrill and the purity of the Christian life, where will the world ever get these things?” Unless the Christian, in the power of Christ, defeats world-weariness and world corruption, these things must flourish unchecked.

(iii) Have salt in yourselves and live at peace with each other. Here we must take salt in the sense of purity.The ancients declared that there was nothing in the world purer than salt because it came from the two purest things, the sun and the sea. The very glistening whiteness of salt was a picture of purity. So this will mean, “Have within yourselves the purifying influence of the Spirit of Christ. Be purified from selfishness and self-seeking, from bitterness and anger and grudge-bearing. Be cleansed from irritation and moodiness and self-centredness, and then, and then only, you will be able to live in peace with your fellow men.” In other words, Jesus is saying that it is only the life that is cleansed of self and filled with Christ which can live in real fellowship with men.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MARK

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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