Mk 9:50, two more “hard sayings”

October 28, 2007

Part two (part one was here)

Mark 9:49–50 consists of three of Jesus’ most enigmatic statements.

1. Everyone will be salted with fire.
2. Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again?
3. Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other.

If, then, Lev 2 is the appropriate background and we are to think of Mk 9:49 as a description of fully committed discipleship (as I suggested last week), what does v. 50 have to do with v. 49? Probably v. 50 is added as another topical statement because it uses the same word, “salt,” in another of Jesus’ sayings. We call these “catch words” in which the use of one word, especially words used infrequently, reminds the writer of another saying that uses the same word. Mark has collected here all the sayings of Jesus that use the word “salt” (at least as far as we have them recorded).

The salt illustration in v. 50 is not used in exactly the same way as v. 49. There is no direct association here in the saying itself with fire and sacrifice. It does not describe something to be done, but is a proverbial statement regarding a quality. In essence v. 50 says, “saltiness is good.” What is implied, though not directly stated, is that the disciples were to make an effort to preserve “saltiness.” If salt looses its saltiness, it is of no value.

How can salt become “unsalty”? Salt is NaCl, sodium chloride. Is it possible to take the “saltiness” out of salt? No, that is part of its chemical properties. But first century salt was not as pure as our salt. It was usually obtained from the Dead Sea (also called the Salt Sea), either from the deposits around it or from evaporation of its water. This form of salt was not pure NaCl, but also contained other minerals (e.g., gypsum). If the NaCl leeched out, what was left was no longer salty. (Would you want to use ground drywall on your food? 🙂 Drywall is made with gypsum and is sometimes called gypsum board.)

So, what does this salt represent in Jesus’ metaphorical saying? What does salt illustrate that is part of discipleship? (Remember that discipleship is the larger theme in this context.)

One approach to answering that question is listing all the qualities or uses of salt. That might include something like this:

  • Characteristics
  • Taste (salty)
  • Texture (gritty)
  • Color (white)
  • Nature (soluable), or
  • Uses
  • Condiment on food
  • Preservative (e.g., salted meat/fish)
  • Melting ice (and making homemade ice cream!)
  • Water softner systems
  • Killing grass (e.g., in cracks in your sidewalk)
  • Attracting deer to your favorite hunting spot (salt blocks)
  • Putting out grease fires
  • Whipping cream or egg whites (add a pinch—they will whip quicker and higher!)
  • Administering intravenous medicine (.09% saline solution—because blood is .09% salt)
  • Keeping your turkey moist (rub the cavity with salt before roasting)
  • Gargling for a sore throat
  • Make your broom last longer (soak it in hot salt water before using; won’t help on plastic ones! 🙂 )
  • Polishing copper or brass (rub with paste of equal parts salt, flour, vinegar)
  • Deodorize your sneakers
  • Homemade playdough
  • etc.

And the list could go on for a long time! If you search the web you’ll discover that there are supposed to be 14,000 uses for salt. The examples listed above are “home uses,” but there are many more commercial uses as well since it is a key elements in the manufacture of many chemicals. (Free trivia: every American uses over 400 lbs. of salt annually, more than 16 tons in a lifetime–about 60% of which is to clear roads of snow and ice. See the Salt Institute pages for lots more info.)

But having said all that, does it help us understand what Jesus meant? Can we just pick one of the 14,000 uses and use it to interpret Mk 9:50? Or should we use several of them and as a result find multiple meanings in this text? People often do just that (and preachers have their favorite illustrations to prove we should all be evangelists, etc.), but it is not legitimate to interpret Scripture that way. To do so makes us and our culture the basis for meaning (“reader response” criticism). It is better—and safer!—to ask, what is the context talking about? Asking that question would make our interpretation relevant to the context (perhaps a novel idea to some! 🙂 ) and it also lets the context determine what it means rather than our imagination. This approach is especially important when we’re dealing with “hard sayings.”

Perhaps this second salt saying (v. 50a) is related to the first saying in v. 49. If the picture there was discipleship in terms of the OT sacrifices in which salt was used (see part one of this discussion), perhaps it is that same idea that is relevant to salt in v. 50. Perhaps we should think of it in terms of discipleship—the dedication and sacrifice that is essential to true discipleship is good—but if it has lost its saltiness, its dedication and commitment, what good is it?

By application we might say, they still have the name—they are still called salt—i.e., “Christian,” but if there is no saltiness left, if their dedication and commitment has all “leeched out,” there’s a problem with their discipleship.

[Remember that we’re talking about discipleship here, not salvation. It might be interesting to ask how this salty picture relates to soteriology, but that is not the purpose or context of Mk 9. It’s not legitimate to press a proverbial saying like this into proving some other doctrine—like conditional salvation.]

Now, if my contextual explanation is wrong (and it might be!) and salt here has some other meaning, at least I’m “safe” in developing a theme that is valid in the context and I’m not guilty of twisting the text to say something unrelated to the context! And that’s the sort of hermeneutical caution to which we ought to aspire. “Creativity” in hermeneutics and exegesis is not a commendable quality! As someone once said (I forget who), we are bound by the tyranny of the text. That is especially important to remember when dealing with “hard sayings.”

The end of v. 50 I will treat rather briefly. This third “hard saying” of Jesus continues with another instance of the catch word “salt.” The saying is in two parts, both of which are plural.

ἔχετε ἐν ἑαυτοῖς ἅλα καὶ εἰρηνεύετε ἐν ἀλλήλοις.
(Note the two plural verbs as well as the plural pronouns.)

At the least we are moving from an individual focus (e.g., “everyone,” πᾶς, in v. 49) to a group focus. Jesus, in the original context, is talking to his disciples. He gives two commands:

  • Have salt among yourselves.
  • Be at peace with one another.

The first is metaphorical, the second pretty straightforward. That makes it a bit easier, because even if we don’t understand the metaphorical expression related to salt, the second part is a lot easier. And since it’s likely that they are intended to be parallel statements that explain each other, we know what Jesus is saying. His followers are to “get along” with each other. How is salt relevant to that? I don’t know. There are numerous suggestions here that involves various background customs, a covenant of salt, sharing a meal together, etc. But I’ve not read anything that makes it obvious why any of these are relevant to this saying. Perhaps they are, but at the least it’s rather obscure to us. Since we know what Jesus wants us to understand due to the parallel statement in the second half, I’m content to leave it at that.

And now, at about 9:30 Sunday morning, I will leave to meet with my church family and we’ll talk about these verses. If anything changes, I’ll be back and revise accordingly! 🙂 And if you’re from Northmoreland and happen to read my blog before you leave for church this morning, you have a preview of the SS lesson today! 🙂