This instance recorded in Matthew and Luke occurs as part of the Sermon on the Mount (or Plain). Another reference to salt losing its flavor is found in Mark 9:50 and most likely is given at another time. The rationale for seeing Mark’s account as given at a different time relates to the nature of Jesus’ teaching ministry. Often the message given was the same but the places changed, such as the “Kingdom is at Hand” proclamation. Of course, many of the accounts recorded in the Synoptic Gospels are parallel and given from another perspective, when they are not in exact agreement, but not all of the sayings of Jesus were given only once, since not all of the disciples were with Him on all occasions, and others (who would become part of the 500 who witnessed His resurrected person) needed to hear the same message in different towns. Newspapers and other media did not exist, so it should not be surprising that the same teachings were repeated at different times and places.
The Sermon on the Mount starts as a description of the character of Jesus’ disciples (see Lk. 6.20a). Here is Mt. 5.1-12 from the New English Translation since this section defines the “salt of the earth.”
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them. “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil things about you falsely on account of me. Rejoice and be glad because your reward is great in heaven, for they persecuted the prophets before you in the same way. (NET)
Salt: A Metaphor of The Wisdom of Salvation
Therefore, with seeing these traits in Mt. 5, it is easy to see exactly what “the salt of the earth” is: the wisdom for salvation (2Tim. 3.15). The disciples had traits resembling Jesus and their Father in heaven. Conversely, what losing its “flavor” means: initially doing well, evidently in one’s own strength, but in time the effort is exhausted. It is a reversion to living after one’s own heart instead of looking to Jesus.
The King James Version
You are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his flavor (morantha), with which shall it be salted? it is thereafter good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men (Mt. 5.13).
A note about the word “morantha” (from moraino), translated as “loses its flavor” in both Matthew and Luke’s account given in the “Sermon on the Mount.” In this instance, as I regard the passage, it is a wrong translation. It should read: “become foolish” for these reasons:
1. To translate the phrase “loses it flavor” (lose its saltiness) is from Mark’s account, which I have previously explained was most likely given at a different time than the Matthew and Luke sections. The related content in Mark clearly shows this is the case.
2. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus is already using a figure of speech in terming His disciples as “salt.” Why would He use a term such as “moraino,” which clearly means “to make foolish,” as another figure of speech within a figure of speech? No, in this instance, Jesus is clarifying what He means: that the disciples not turn to folly and be characterized opposite of the traits Jesus just described in verses 2-12 of Matthew chapter 5.
3. Jesus was speaking to His disciples to whom He explained figures of speech in instances where they asked. In Lk. 14.35, Jesus warns: ” The one who has ears to hear had better listen!” He wanted the disciples to clearly understand the message to them, so He uses “become foolish.” This is how both Matthew 5.13 and Luke 14.34 should both be translated: “become foolish”.
A Better Translation
“You are the salt of the earth. But if salt becomes foolish how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled on by people.
I. Howard Marshall, in his commentary on Luke, notes “no attestation” of moraino than “to make folly, become foolish,” but still thinks Luke 14.34 should read: “lose its saltiness.” I respectfully disagree for the previously cited reasons. No matter how one translates the phrase, one thing should be clear, the meaning of “losing its flavor” is “to become foolish.”
Therefore, the salt of the earth are the people of God (Jesus’ disciples) who have the converse: wisdom of salvation. Notice the traits of The Sermon of the Mount are what would be typical of wise folks. They recognize the temporal nature of earthly existence and therefore are “poor in spirit.” They are in the house of mourning and not laughing along with fools as Solomon notes:
It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart. Frustration is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure. It is better to heed the rebuke of a wise person than to listen to the song of fools. Like the crackling of thorns under the pot, so is the laughter of fools. (Ec. 7. 2-6 NIV)
The O.T. is replete with this contrast of “the wise” and “foolish,” and thus, this saying of Jesus would resonate with His hearers, Second Temple Jews, who were steeped in the scriptures.
Sorrowful, Yet Always Rejoicing
Does being “poor in spirit” mean Christians are sad and mousey? Not at all! We react to each situation as appropriate. Paul urges the young Christians in Thessalonica to rejoice always (1Th. 5.16). Jesus also rejoiced full of the Holy Spirit when He saw God’s purposes being fulfilled in revealing the gospel’s mysterious truths, not to the big shots in that religious culture, but to sincere ordinary folks (Lk. 10.21).
Paul describes his ministry as a walk in wisdom reacting to everyone on a case- by-case basis. Reading his letters shows that he poured himself out for his listeners so that they would know the Lord and His truth. Walking in the Spirit often involves paradoxes and is probably puzzling to those who try to live by their own wits. It is, however, a walk in love and truth. Here is an explanation of Paul’s ministry that tracks well along the same path as those whom Jesus describes as the salt of the earth:
We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything. (2Cor. 6. 3-10 NIV)