Matthew 5:13 – “You beloved, are the salt of the earth. But if salt becomes bland and loses its saltiness, can anything make it salty again? No. It is useless. It is tossed out, thrown away, or trampled.”
As I was doing some research into the role of salt in our lives, I came across this fairy tale about a king and his daughters. A few different cultures have versions of this story: Germany, Italy, India, and others. This one comes from Austria.
Once upon a time there was a king who had three daughters. Because they were good and beautiful he loved them all sincerely. He did not know which one he should appoint as queen.
As his birthday approached he summoned his daughters and said to them, “My dear children, I love all three of you sincerely, and for a long time have not known which one of you I should name to be the heir to my throne. But I have now decided that the one of you shall become queen who brings to me a birthday present that is most necessary in human life. Go and make your plans accordingly and with utmost diligence.”
The old king’s birthday arrived, and the two oldest daughters brought him presents that were very necessary, but at the same time extremely expensive. However, the youngest daughter brought him nothing more than a little pile of salt in a decorated container. When the king saw her present he became very angry, and he drove his daughter out of the castle, forbidding her ever again to let herself be seen by him.
With deep sorrow the rejected daughter went out into the unknown world, comforted only by her faith in her own good sense. After walking a good while she came to an inn. There she found a female innkeeper who thoroughly understood cooking. She entered an apprenticeship with her and soon exceeded even the innkeeper in the art of cooking.
News spread far and wide of the excellent cook in this inn, and everyone who came this way and who still had some money left in his pocket stopped to be served a roast or something even more elegant.
The king heard of the cook’s reputation, and he hired her as court cook. Now it came to pass that the oldest princess was getting married, and the famous cook was assigned the preparation of the wedding feast, with no expenses to be spared.
Thus on the wedding day one elegant dish after the other was served until the table almost cracked. Everything was excellently prepared, and everyone praised the cook. Finally the king’s favorite dish arrived. Quickly taking a spoon he tasted it. “This has not been salted!” he cried out angrily. “Have the cook brought before me!”
They quickly ran for the cook, who entered the hall undaunted.
“Why did you forget to salt my favorite dish, you careless girl?” snapped the king at her.
The cook answered, “You drove away your youngest daughter because she thought that salt was so necessary. Perhaps you can now see that your child was not so wrong.”
When the king heard these words he recognized his daughter, begged her for forgiveness, asked her to be seated at his side, and accepted her once again as his dear child. Then the wedding became doubly joyful.
The king lived happily with his children for many years thereafter.
Salt. Salt is one of those things that makes up the background of our lives. It’s by our stoves, on our kitchen tables and – for us New Englanders – probably also in our garages and sheds. It seems to be everywhere and nowhere all at the same time. We may not notice it when it’s around but we sure notice it when it’s missing.
Salt is necessary. According the Royal Society of Chemistry (who certainly sound like they know what they’re talking about) it’s the sodium (ions) present in salt that the human body requires in order to perform a variety of essential functions. Salt helps maintain the fluid in our blood cells and is used to transmit information in our nerves and muscles. It’s also used in the uptake of certain nutrients from our small intestines. Not only does salt add flavor to our food and melt the ice off of our sidewalks, salt is actually an essential ingredient in our lives.
I first heard the fairy tale about the king and his daughters from Alton Brown, someone I would consider a patron saint of the Food Network. For years, he’s produced and hosted TV shows and written books that explored the science and technique of cooking, somehow managing to combine the traditions of Julia Child and Emeril Lagasse with Mr. Wizard and Bill Nye the Science Guy. As I’ve learned more about cooking, Alton Brown joined a growing list of teachers that I found on TV and in books and mentors that taught me in actual kitchens, like my mom and dad.
Referring to the fairy tale, Alton Brown said “The moral of the story is that salt can make anything taste better, by making it taste more like itself.”
You can slave over a stove for hours adding aromatics and proteins and vegetables and spices and still end up with mild or bland tasting food. Once you add just a dash of salt, it all comes together. Salt is the essential ingredient.
Jesus says to us: “you are the salt of the earth.” Have you had a time, even just a moment, when someone has had a profound effect on your life? Perhaps a parent, a friend, a partner or a mentor who’s long simmering friendship provided a stable base, comforting arms where you can always return for comfort when you’re troubled and where you can celebrate when you joy boils over? Maybe it was just a chance encounter; a stranger who smiled at you when you were down or the kind words of a co-worker who never even knew how much you were hurting inside. What moment or mentor has been an essential ingredient in your life?
And when have you been that guide or that stranger? I can guarantee that there have been times when you have made a difference to someone else. Your warm welcome to a stranger has developed new friendships. Your helping hand has fed someone in need and affected their life. When you reached out to someone who was grieving and just said “I’m sorry,” you helped them to feel Christ’s healing presence. You are the salt of the earth. You have been essential to another child of God.
If someone were to come to God, as the king came to his daughters and asked “what is the most necessary ingredient to create the kingdom of heaven on Earth,” the answer wouldn’t be money or power or time. God would say that the most essential ingredient is you. Your kind words to a stranger, your love for your friends, your quest for peace and justice are all part of the recipe for the world that God wants us to have and knows that we can achieve.
We don’t always recognize how essential we are. Like the king, we don’t see the importance of our “salt.” We worry that we’re not perfect and we think that means we can’t make a difference. Yes, we’re imperfect. God knows that. God made us that way and said it was “good.” Alton Brown said that salt “can make anything better by making it taste more like itself.” Working for God’s kingdom can make us better by making us more like ourselves. It’s okay that we’re imperfect because our life’s quest is to become more like our true selves: the good, creative, intelligent, peaceful person that God knows we can be.
You are the salt of the earth. Jesus warns that salt can’t regain its taste once it’s been lost but the truth is: it’s actually very hard for salt to lose its saltiness. You can never lose the essence of who you truly are. No matter how far you may feel you have strayed from your path, no matter how little you may think you matter in the grand scheme of God’s world, you are essential – to strangers, to friends, to yourself, to God. Once we can begin to recognize that truth, we can begin to live happily ever after.