In the Office of Readings for this past Sunday (20th Sunday of the Year), we read St. John Chrysostom’s meditation on what it means that we are “the salt of the earth.” I would like to ponder his teaching in three stages.
Do not think, he says, that you are destined for easy struggles or unimportant tasks. You are the salt of the earth (Mat 5:13). What do these words imply? Did the disciples restore what had already turned rotten? Not at all. Salt cannot help what is already corrupted. That is not what they did. But what had first been renewed and freed from corruption and then turned over to them, they salted and preserved in the newness the Lord had bestowed. It took the power of Christ to free men from the corruption caused by sin; it was the task of the apostles through strenuous labor to keep that corruption from returning [St. John Chrysostom, Hom. 16:6,7: PG 57, 231-232].
Christ has restored fellow human beings to life, freeing them from corruption, sin, and death, and He has entrusted them to the Church’s care. This is a high honor, a great dignity, but it is also a tremendous responsibility.
Consider well, especially if you are a parent or a pastor, that God has entrusted the care of immortal souls to you. He says that we are to be salt, which is an image of preservation from corruption. How do we do this? By living holy lives for others, preaching the gospel, teaching true doctrine, pointing to Christ, celebrating the sacraments, correcting error, praying, and fasting.
It is a high calling, but it is not easy an easy one. None of us should undertake such tasks lightly or without regard for the sacrifices that will be necessary. We will ultimately be judged by what we do or fail to do in this regard. If we fail, it will be a double loss, because both we and those we are called to preserve will be lost.
If others lose their savor, then your ministry will help them regain it. But if you yourselves suffer that loss, you will drag others down with you. Therefore, the greater the undertakings put into your hands, the more zealous you must be. For this reason, he says, But if the salt becomes tasteless, how can its flavor be restored? It is good for nothing now, but to be thrown out and trampled by men’s feet (Mat 5:14-15) [Ibid].
If we lose our savor, it is not that we are merely diminished in our capacity. No, it is worse: we become good for nothing. Bringing souls to Christ through teaching and baptism is our primary job. Fulfilling less-important duties does no good if we are not doing our most important job. Consider that a store manager may have great communication skills and a friendly disposition, but if he isn’t selling product none of it matters. We may be pleasant people, highly competent in our careers, and even generous to the poor—but even pagans can do this. If we’re not advancing the Kingdom and seeking to win souls or ensure their spiritual stability, we are good for nothing. It’s a double danger because we risk not only our own souls but the souls of others.
In our times, we have seen the Church fall into this sort of danger. We put so much effort into promoting ourselves as being welcoming, pleasant, and tolerant, that many of us have compromised the gospel, either by silence or through outright deception. Only salt itself can preserve, not salt substitutes. Only the true gospel can save, not a false or diminished one. Only the real Jesus can save, not some fake one.
The danger is that we who are called to be salt become flat, and we can no longer preserve this world and the people in it from decay and death.
It is a double danger and a double loss because everyone, including us, will be lost.
When [the disciples] hear the words: “When they curse you and persecute you and accuse you of every evil,” they may be afraid to come forward. Therefore, he says [in effect]; “Unless you are prepared for that sort of thing, it is in vain that I have chosen you. Curses shall necessarily be your lot, but they shall not harm you and will simply be a testimony to your constancy. If through fear, however, you fail to show the forcefulness your mission demands, your lot will be much worse, for all will speak evil of you and despise you. That is what being trampled by men’s feet means” [Ibid].
Never presume that the world and the prince of this world, the devil, love you or are pleased with you. You are just a tool for them to use; when you do connive with them, you are not loved or respected but rather regarded with contempt because you are so easily manipulated. Once you are no longer useful, you will be thrown out and trampled underfoot. This is the worst double loss of all: you are useless to God and useless to the world.
It is better to be hated by the world but be with God, in His love and in service to Him. Curses and hatred from the world will be something of our lot here in this passing world, but such things cannot ultimately hurt us; in fact, they testify on our behalf. In the end, the victory will be ours.
Stay salty, my friends. Otherwise expect the double loss of being good for nothing: useless to God and to souls. You will be laughed at and scorned by the world and the devil, who will trample you underfoot in derision.
These are strong words, but they are spoken by none other than the Lord Himself and St. John Chrysostom.