Salt and Fires
In the Aramaic language that Jesus spoke the word translated
as “earth” can also—and in this passage, culturally
more plausibly—be translated as “earth-oven.”
The “earth-oven,” the common stove in Mediterranean
villages, was made of mud or clay. The fuel it burned was camel-dung
patties, dried and salted so that they would burn better.
has mysterious power. The block of salt on the floor of the
earth-oven kept the fire going just as much as the salt crystals
in the dung patties.
Eventually a block of salt in the earth-oven
loses its catalytic ability and must be thrown out (Mt 5:13).
Salt that can no longer burn the fuel or prepare the fuel is
useless (Lk 14:34-35).
Salty or Fiery People
Jesus came to light the oven (Lk 12:49), that is, Jesus presents
himself as a catalyst. He causes fires to break out, arguments
to erupt, families to quarrel and become divided in their opinion
of him. He urges his disciples likewise to be catalytic and
to do the same thing he does (Mt 5:13; Mk 9:49).
Jesus the "Divisive Catalyst"
Jesus' assertion that he will cause division in families is
obviously something above and beyond the normal Mediterranean
family and group shenanigans. It is far more serious.
Joining Jesus' group also jeopardized one's relations with the very large kinship network formed by marriage, a network far larger than the biological family.
The sharp delineation of social hierarchy that characterized
antiquity was rigidly observed by all. No one dared step out
of the inherited or assigned place. To do so would be to risk
death. One move in this deadly direction would be to socialize
with people outside of one's social position.
of Jesus who liked him and decided to follow him would also
have to join his fictive family group. “My mother and
brothers,” that is, my new, fictive relatives, said Jesus,
“are those who hear the word of God and do it!” (Lk
To separate oneself from one's family or clan is literally
a matter of life and death. Elites, (including the “greedy
[rich]” whom Luke so often includes in his Gospel), would
lose everything, all their wealth, power, and influence, by
associating with the wrong kind of people or joining the wrong
kinds of groups.
Joining Jesus' group also jeopardized one's relations with
the very large kinship network formed by marriage, a network
far larger than the biological family. This is where the in-laws
and other such family members enter the picture (Lk 12:52-53).
By demonstrating how to be catalysts for the fire in the earth-oven
and summoning us to be and do the same, Jesus challenges American
Our culture takes pride in its faith in God, but
we believe religion and politics should not mix. Clergy may
pray before legislative sessions and bless conflicts, but criticism
and protest are not welcome.
Who among us is salt of the earth?
John J. Pilch
Back to the Word
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and
facilitator of parish renewals. Liturgical
Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring
the cultural world” of the Bible.
Go to http://www.litpress.org/
Copyright © 1997 by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc.,
All rights reserved.
Used by permission from The Liturgical
Press, Collegeville, Minnesota 56321
The complete text of the above article can be found
The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle
John J. Pilch. The Liturgical Press. 1997. pp.
Art by Martin Erspamer, OSB
from Religious Clip Art for the Liturgical Year
B, and C).
art may be reproduced only by parishes who purchase the
collection in book or CD-ROM form. For more information go to http://www.ltp.org