Who is the salt of the earth?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told His audience that they were the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matt. 5:13-16); further, He warned them not to "lose their savor" for the consequences for the world if they did would be dire. Christians universally understand Jesus to be identifying them, no matter what their nationality, as the salt and light.
I will argue here what at first may appear to be an absurd proposition - that Jesus was not laying upon His disciples the roles of salt shaker and light bringer. No, that burden had already been laid upon others' shoulders long before then. Jesus' words confirm the original calling to be salt and light. Don't misunderstand. Christians obviously should scrupulously follow every word spoken by Jesus in that "sermon". That is not the issue.
One of the well-known rules of proper interpretation of Scripture is to ask, "Who is the audience"? Most commentators believe that the sermon was delivered to Jesus' followers alone. John Stott says, "There can be little doubt that Jesus' main purpose in going up a hill or mountain to teach was to withdraw from the 'great crowds.'" (The Message of the Sermon on the Mount). Leon Morris says, "We should bear in mind that the teaching that follows is addressed to disciples rather than the general public" (The Gospel According to Matthew, p. 94). This position seems untenable for the following reasons:
1. The account tells us that when Jesus saw the "great multitudes who followed Him. from Galilee, and from Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan. He went up on a mountain" where He preached the sermon (Matt. 4:25-5:1). Commentators say Jesus went up the mountain to get away from the crowds - as if they would come this far and baulk at a last climb. Another perfectly acceptable reading is that He climbed a little way so that everybody could see and hear Him better, just as one time He went out on a boat to be better heard (Matt. 13:2). The latter reading is much more likely. Why? To suggest that Jesus turned away people who had come from many miles distant - on foot - to hear what He had to say just doesn't sound "Christian"!
2. The Sermon on the Mount is appropriately viewed as containing critically important ethical principles outlining godly conduct. Why oh why would Jesus teach such principles to His disciples secretly? Were His premium ethical gems for authorized ears only? The Holy Spirit later inspired these sayings to be recorded for one and all!
3. Matthew 5:1 says that, "seeing the multitudes (Grk: ochlos)" Jesus went up the hill. When He had finished preaching the Sermon, we are told that "the people (ochlos again) were astonished as His teaching" (7:28). Indeed, the
"multitudes", and not just the disciples, heard the Sermon and marveled.
Ascribing motives is always a risky proposition. Nevertheless, when one recognizes the huge implications involved if Jesus told the multitude of Israelites that they, and not just His disciples, were the salt and light of the earth, it is not surprising that many Christians just cannot accept the wide-audience interpretation. God called Abraham's physical seed, Israel, to serve as His agents in spreading knowledge of the Holy One of Israel to all the world. They were to be, "a special treasure to Me above all people. a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:5-6). Of both Jesus Christ (Luke 2:32) and of the entire nation of Israel (Acts 13:47), God had said,
. I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, that You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth (Is. 49:).
The Old Testament does not specifically describe Israel's role as being the salt of the world. But one cannot help but note the words immediately preceding those just quoted from Isaiah about Israel being a light. God's servant would, "restore the preserved ones of Israel". The Hebrew seems obscure, with variant readings for "preserved"; the proper reading may well suggest that Israel is to "preserve". Very interesting in light of the universal understanding that the property of salt Jesus was talking about is its power to preserve.
Perhaps Christendom's greatest blunder is its assertion that God got tired of Israel's failure to fulfill its calling as His agent of salvation for all mankind and so replaced Israel with the church. This "replacement theology" is just plain wrong, and leads into all manner of error. It denies the plainest of all possible words:
Thus says the Lord, Who gives the sun for a light by day, the ordinances of the moon and the stars for a light by night, Who disturbs the sea, and its waves roar. "If those ordinances depart From before Me, says the Lord, then the seed of Israel shall also cease from being a nation before Me forever" (Jer. 31:35-36).
Noticed any celestial or marine upheavals of late? No, God has not replaced Israel with the church in His great plan for all mankind. Christendom errs in saying that non-Israelite followers of Jesus are the salt and the light. No, they are the salted and the illuminated. The church that Jesus built is the continuation of the believing and faithful remnant of Israel, with Gentiles added to the "trunk of Abraham" as grafted branches. The world is in the parlous state it is because Israel has lost its savor. Wherewith shall it be resalted? Truly, God alone knows. May He move swiftly to resalt His people Israel. For everybody's sake.