Sayings from the Sermon on the Mount have become part of our everyday language. “Do unto others,” “Judge not,” “Turn the other cheek,” and so on.
How about this one? He’s a real “salt of the earth” kind of guy? This saying comes from the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus tells his followers:
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” (Matthew 5:13)
The meaning of salt in Jesus’ time
In this Sermon on the Mount saying, Jesus is using the idea of salt as a metaphor. To the ancient culture that Jesus was speaking to, salt was a vitally important, valuable commodity. It was necessary to support life. Salt was a seasoning, a preservative, a disinfectant, a unit of monetary exchange, and a part of ceremonial offerings. It gave taste to everything it touched. It appears that Jesus’ straightforward intention was that the disciples whose lives he touched should have a preserving, seasoning, and supportive effect on the lives of people they touched.
In context, salt was also a special metaphor for the people of the Galilee region familiar with the town of Magdala. Ruins from the time of Jesus have now been uncovered at Magdala, just three miles north of Tiberias on the northwestern side of the Sea of Galilee. It was the home of Mary Magdalene and a village known for its fish processing.
Fish harvested throughout the Sea of Galilee were hauled to Magdala and then processed and preserved with salt for transportation throughout the Roman Empire. So famous were these salted fish that came from Magdala that the Romans called the town “Taricheae,” which means, “salted fish.”
Go the extra mile?
Here’s another familiar Sermon on the Mount saying: “Go the extra mile.” Here, Jesus said to his followers:
“If any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” (Matthew 5:41)
This illustration pointed to the Roman law that allowed a soldier to compel a civilian to carry his pack one Roman mile. The Romans used distinctive milestones to mark distances on their road systems. These were stone columns that were set on bases by the side of the road every 4,850 feet, which was the measurement for a “Roman mile.” Because they were made of stone, many of these mile markers survive to this day.
It seems Jesus was saying to the oppressed civilians of Galilee and Judea, “OK, the Romans have the power to force you to carry their load for a mile — after that it’s up to you. Let’s rock their world, and out of kindness, go for two!” You can imagine the thoughts going on with the tired Roman soldier — “Why is this person doing this? Why is he being kind to me when I just interrupted his day and burdened him to carry my load?
In cultural context, the sayings of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount are filled with meaning and nuance.