Once upon a time there was a foolish king who had three beautiful daughters. He decided to ask each of them one day how much they loved him.
“Oh, Father,” the first daughter, who was known for her greed, exclaimed, “you are dearer to me than gold!” This answer pleased the king, and he kissed her and ordered that she be given a beautiful gold necklace. Happily, she skipped away.
“Oh Father!” the second daughter, who was known for her vanity, exclaimed, “you are dearer to me than the finest silk!” This answer also pleased the king, and he kissed her and ordered that she be given a beautiful embroidered silk gown. Happily, she too skipped away.
“Oh Father!” the third and youngest daughter, who was known for her wisdom, exclaimed, “you are dearer to me than salt!” This answer enraged the king. “You compare your love for me to a common rock, ugly and worthless!” He turned to the guards. “Take her away from my sight, and let her be a servant in the kitchen, so she can be with her precious salt all the time!” the king thundered, and his guards took her, gave her serving rags, and assigned her a room in the dungeon near the cellars with the other servants. The other servants felt great pity for her, and yet they dared not help her.
The king then proclaimed a great feast for his other two daughters. The servants, including the princess, scurried back and forth from the cellars to the kitchens, preparing all kinds of sumptuous foods. The cook herself, a kindly woman, also came down and supervised the servants in selecting the vegetables and meats from the cellars. The princess had an idea. She told the cook her plan and the cook agreed.
The king, his other two daughters, and his guests had gathered in the great hall above, and were eagerly anticipating a magnificent feast. The first daughter was wearing her fine gold necklace, and the second daughter preened in her magnificent silk gown. The two older sisters demanded that their sister be dressed as a maid and be forced to wait upon them.
Dish after dish of steaming vegetables and fine meats were set before the revelers. Eagerly, the king heaped his plate high, and tasted the first dish. A look of astonishment passed over his face. He then tried each of the other dishes, and then angrily shoved the plate aside. “Bring me the cook!” he thundered.
The cook was hustled into the great hall. “What is the meaning of this?” the king shouted. “This food is terrible!” “Your majesty banished your daughter to the dungeon, and stripped her of her rightful place in your household, and I was afraid you would do the same to me. So I carefully prepared the food without any salt to save myself.”
The king stood, open-mouthed. He then tasted the food, and it was completely bland and tasteless. The king’s third daughter, dressed in her maid’s uniform, came and knelt before him. “Father, I said that you were dearer to me than salt, because salt is necessary for life, for flavor. That is how much I love you.”
And the king, realizing his mistake, embraced his daughter and asked her forgiveness, which she promptly gave, for she did love her father. He placed his crown upon her head, his signet ring upon her finger, his robe upon her shoulders, and made her his heir, realizing her wisdom. It’s funny the things we take for granted, the folk wisdom we forget.
As I was thinking about salt this week, I found that there were versions of this folk tale from all over the world, everywhere from India to Italy to Germany. Although we take it for granted, salt has played a crucial role in world history.
In the ancient world, salt was such a valuable commodity that Roman soldiers were paid in salt, which is where we get the word “salary” to this day. A man in love was called “salax” which means to be “salted.”
German brides had their shoes salted in ancient times as a hope for children, because salt was associated with fertility. Entire trading empires rose and fell, and wars were fought over salt, which was thought to be rare. One form of salt, saltpeter, is a necessary ingredient in making gunpowder, as the Chinese discovered.
In the Hebrew scriptures, salt was a sign of the everlasting covenant between God and the Israelites, and salt was mixed into the offerings as a sign of the covenant, as noted in Leviticus 2:13. In Numbers 18:19, when God is setting Aaron and his descendants aside as priests, God gives them the right to all the offerings given to God forever, saying, “All the holy offerings that the Israelites present to the Lord I have given to you, together with your sons and daughters, as a perpetual due; it is a covenant of salt for ever before the Lord for you and your descendants as well.”
This may be because salt is a preservative beyond compare—which is why the ancient Egyptians preserved bodies with a special salt called natron. Salt is a symbol for purity, as anyone who has a blue cylinder of Morton’s salt may know.
Salt endures. Dissolve salt in water, and if you boil the water, the salt will be the residue in the pan after all the water has evaporated.
The body, both human and animal, needs salt, which is necessary for the correct functioning of our cells, and a healthy adult human body on average has just a bit more than a half pound of salt as part of its composition. Some people swear by the health effects of lamps made from pink Himalayan salt. Trader Joe’s sells a gift box of seven different exotic salts: Kalahari Desert salt, Hawai’ian Black Lava salt, Hawai’ian red salt, Inca Sun salt, Blue Persian salt, Himalayan Pink salt, and South African Oak smoked, and that ignores the trendy kosher salt and sea salt. (1)
In our gospel today, Jesus compares his disciples to salt. “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Coming on the heels of his warning about not being a stumbling block for anyone, especially the innocent, what he’s saying here is that we are tasked with preserving each other, with building each other up, in valuing the dignity and worth of every person. We are not called to destroy each other, attack each other, or exploit each other for our own perceived gain.
In Matthew 5:13, Jesus makes a similar point when he tells his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot,” and then he continues that we are to be the light of the world.
Salt and light. Preservation and enlightenment, or wisdom. How can we be salt in the world? In the midst of the division, hatred, and violence that characterizes so much of our world, we are called to care for each other, look out for each other, accept each other as we are, as brothers and sisters in Christ. We are to work through love to lift up each other, and turn aside from all inside of us that would hurt someone else, no matter how we might justify that by our own fears or discomfort.
We live together as members of a community of Christians and out in the world by our own covenant of salt: to care for each other, to give of ourselves to each other because we recognize that together we are stronger, and divided we are weaker than we would be together. This is a foundation of discipleship.
That’s an important consideration as we prepare for our dedicated stewardship campaign, as well. The money we offer, we offer to God, but what we are really offering is ourselves, just as salt was mixed into all the offerings in the ancient Hebrew system of sacrifice. Our giving empowers us to be the disciples we long to be in the world. It's how we communicate who we are in a world of scarcity.
Sacrifice is too often interpreted in our culture by its negative connotation: something that hurts to give. But sacrifice has another, more important meaning: it makes holy. It purifies. It dedicates. It preserves and hallows. It brings peace rather than pain. It builds up community rather than sets us at competition with one another, and empowers us as a community in our mission to the world.
May we have salt in ourselves, and be salt to each other—steadfast, preserving, life-giving.
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22
1) I am indebted for the idea for the fable and for the facts about salt in world history to Mark Kurlansky, author of Salt: A World History, pp. 1-8
Preached at the 505 on September 29, and at 8:00 and 10:15 pm at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville.