Salt as Fertilizer
A famous parable offered by Jesus Christ during his ministry relates to the chemical value of salt as a preservative, a seasoning, and most effectively as a fertilizer. The imagery of salt in its agricultural context provides an exceptional object lesson related to our desire to expand the effectiveness of our personal witness. The application of salt in its role of making food more palatable and in its preservative qualities is also important. In Mark 9:49-50 at Capernaum and in Matthew 5:13 in the Beatitudes, references to salt applied to seasoning and flavoring. But in the Luke 14:34-35 parable, Jesus referred to the value of salt in an agricultural sense as a feltilizer. Perhaps this connection is most important in terms of extending a productive Gospel message.
Scripture contains multiple citations of agricultural practices ranging from soil preparation, planting, and plant growth, to ingathering of the harvest. Object lessons from agriculturalists of Bible times are plentiful. Many are still relevant to the success of modern agriculture. The October 2016 issue of Christianity Today contained an article by Anthony B. Bradley. His article “You are the Manure of the Earth” drew my attention because of its earthy imagery from the barnyard. Having been privileged to grow up within shouting distance of my grandfather’s 150-acre farm in New York State during the middle years of the 20th century, I was able to identify with many gripping images of farm life, some of which were unsavory including the large pile of animal refuse behind the dairy barn when spring arrived.
Chemically, salt, a generic name for a large number of different chemical compounds, including the well-known sodium chloride, has many different functions in the home, on the farm, and in industry. Most people focus on the taste enhancement or preservation properties of salt. Magnesium, potassium, and calcium chlorides have different chemical properties and many of their benefits are longer lasting than sodium. Some chemical changes result in a loss of “saltiness” or “savor” because its desirable properties are altered as the chemical disintegrates.
We return to the “Manure of the Earth” imagery. In Luke 14:34-35 Jesus stated that “unsalty” salt is neither fit for the soil (as fertilizer) nor fit for the manure pile. In the context of the manure pile, we should understand that good salt properly spread on the manure pile preserves the fertilizing properties of manure. Otherwise, the manure would rot or ferment and become useless as fertilizer. Therefore, “unsalty” salt is useless either as fertilizer itself or to enhance the fertilizing properties of the manure because a rotted, fermented, and useless material would result. Anthony B. Bradley concludes this portion of his discussion: “This centuries-tested agricultural understanding of salt fits these passages and the ancient world much better than interpreting the salt as table salt—even if all this talk of fertilizer and manure makes us a bit squeamish.” By no means does this conversation minimize the importance of salt as a a taste-enhancer or preservative.
The December 2016 Christianity Today magazine contained a reply to the “You Are the Manure of the Earth” article. Scientist Steve Sobolik noted that a science background gives insight into understanding scripture. He writes “A ridiculous myth has developed in recent years that science and faith are mutually exclusive; I believe this sentiment is absolutely false, and I think there are hundreds of years of history to prove that. Therefore, I try to use scientific analogies and subjects whenever I can when I talk about my faith with someone, in an effort to tear down that wall.”
Scripture is vibrantly in harmony with the principle that knowledge of the physical and chemical world we inhabit bears witness to spiritual faith principles and affirms the wisdom of God who created all things.