January 27, 2023 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Matthew 5:13
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.
How does being “salt” relate to our work of being leaders?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus provides his most comprehensive instruction about God’s expectations for us as human beings. After reorienting our own expectations in the Beatitudes, Jesus focuses squarely on God’s purpose for creating God’s human image bearers. Using two remarkably simple and ordinary metaphors – salt and light – Jesus captures the essential qualities of our human vocation.
Today, I will focus on the first of these. Jesus says with profound simplicity, “You are the salt of the earth.”
Have you ever wondered if Jesus had a sense of humor? In today’s text we get glimpses that he did. Jesus almost certainly smiled when he talked about salt that is no longer salty. After all, what is salt if it’s not salty? What a ridiculous suggestion! That’s what salt is, at its very essence.
And that’s Jesus’ point. In a memorable way, Jesus reminds us that salt possesses an essential quality related to our human purpose and identity. That’s an intriguing and rich insight worth pondering.
In the ancient world as today, salt was the primary seasoning agent for food. As far back as the book of Job, the question was asked, “Is tasteless food eaten without salt?” (Job 6:6, NIV) The answer was: of course not! That’s what salt was for, to make tasteless food taste good.
So what does “being salt” mean and what might that look like for our leadership practice?
First, salt is about the other. No one confuses salt with food. Salt is seasoning. Its purpose is to help us enjoy the food, not itself. That’s a helpful metaphor for leadership. Leadership is not intended to be about us; it is about those we serve. Salt, like good leadership, doesn’t bring attention to itself. In fact, when you notice that food is salty, that’s not a good thing. It’s a sign that the food has been oversalted. The same is true for truly human, Jesus-like leadership. It doesn’t call attention to itself. If it does, something has gone wrong. Instead, good leaders draw attention to those they lead.
Second, salt is about the goodness of the other. Salt brings out the flavor in food. Salt’s magic brings out the innate goodness in what otherwise might remain tasteless. Salt allows the full potential of food to be savored and enjoyed. In the same way, human beings are meant to bring out the best in others. Leadership is meant to enable people to be the best version of themselves. Leadership that only brings out mediocrity or worse in others is sub-human leadership. As Jesus demonstrates, when we are fully human leaders, we bring out the full humanity in others.
Third, salt is about the unique goodness of the other. Salt makes different kinds of food taste different, not the same. Salt doesn’t make steak taste like chicken. It helps great steak to taste like great steak. And it helps great chicken to taste like great chicken. Salt has the remarkable capacity to bring out the unique created goodness of each food it seasons. So it is with good leadership. Good leaders bring out the best in others in ways that are unique to who they are. Sometimes we think great leaders should create “model” followers. But God actually isn’t interested in cookie-cutter people. God has created each person to be uniquely themselves. And as leaders we need to cultivate, to the best of our abilities, the unique goodness of those we serve.
One further observation. It’s interesting to me that Jesus said we are to be “the salt of the earth” and not just “the salt of our communities.” While there is little question that Jesus’ words apply to the people we lead, they suggest that being “salt” also applies to our relationship with the physical world. In the same way we are to bring out the best in other people, we are also called as Jesus’ followers to bring out the best in the planet we inhabit, to cultivate the creation we have inherited as stewards. It is no accident that the first image of human leadership and work is tending a physical garden, allowing its innate goodness to flourish to full fruit. Perhaps like no generation before us, both our planet and our people need us to be “worth our salt!”
And that leads us to the warning Jesus issues. Human beings are the salt of the earth. Notice how Jesus uses the definite article. There is no other alternative, no other salt for the earth. That suggests there is a distinct and unique role that human leaders must play to ensure the flourishing of God’s created world. If we do not fulfill our vocation, we are useless and the world around us will remain “tasteless.”
And God has no “Plan B.” Both our people and our planet depend on human beings to bring out and fulfill their unique potential. That’s an astonishing calling. Given our current dire global situation, it can also seem overwhelming. But it is what God intends and why Jesus came.
The good news embedded in our text today is that Jesus himself (being God in human form) is “the salt of the earth.” Jesus will yet restore all that is good in God’s creation. And he will do that in fulfillment of God’s intention for him as a human being. Our calling as human leaders in the present is to share in that work with him, despite the ruin and devastation we may encounter along the way. As the prophet Isaiah prophesied millennia ago, we are to be “oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor. They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations” (Isaiah 61:3b-4, NIV).
That too is what it means to be the salt of the earth.
In what ways are you like salt in your leadership? In what ways are you not? Why might that be?
For someone in your circle of influence, find a way to bring out and affirm their unique gifts and capacities.
Lord Jesus Christ, we are awed and humbled by your description of us as the salt of the earth. So much of our leadership seems preoccupied with ourselves, with our gifts and capacities, and with producing followers who look like us. Forgive us and make us to be the salt of the earth again. We ask in your name, Amen.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project’s online commentary. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Salt and Light in the World of Work (Matthew 5:13-16).
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During his adult life, Uli Chi has lived and worked in the intersection between business, the academy and the church. He has had the privilege of serving as past Board Chair of Regent College in Vancouver, BC, as current Vice Chair of the Board of the Max De Pree Leadership Center at Fuller Seminary, and as current Chair of the Executive Committee of the Center for Integrity in Business at Seattle Pacific University. He has also been involved in all aspects of local church leadership, including as a member of the adult ministries team’s teaching faculty at John Knox Presbyterian Church in Seattle.
Click here to view Uli’s profile.