The Common Good

The Trouble with Being Salt and Light

There was a time when calling someone “salt of the earth” was a compliment. It suggested a strong work ethic, moral integrity, and someone whose priorities were in proper order. Today, it seems like more of an insult than anything else.

Hands streteched toward lights, pukach / Shutterstock.com
Hands streteched toward lights, pukach / Shutterstock.com

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When surveyed about what they wanted to be when they grow up, the most common response from a cohort of school-age children was “famous.” The response revealed nothing about personal passion or ambition, let alone anything about a greater need to be addressed within the larger community. It points to the fact that one of the most revered qualities in our culture is to be known. What you’re known for is less important than simply having people know who you are.

It would be easy to speak critically of a younger group of people who seem to be losing their orientation to a greater social moral compass, but this is a bellwether for where we seem to be headed. Shine brightly, get noticed and make a place for yourself.

But the thing is, the kind of light Jesus talked about is different. Aside from the splashy neon lights found in Vegas, most lights aren’t meant to draw attention to themselves. Rather, they simply reveal the nature of other things in their path, or help forge a way through an otherwise dark space. And generally we don’t even see the light itself: only those objects that reflect it back to us.

Light for the sake of itself may be brilliant, impressive even, but without any real substance. And prolonged exposure to intense light proves damaging to our eyes, which are not equipped to handle such input. It’s meant to be an accomplice in a greater system, an invisible helper that provides the means by which other ends are achieved.

At its best, light is more or less unnoticed by our mind’s eye.

The same goes for salt. Although our tendency sometimes is to overdo it with the ubiquitous spice, doing so fairly ruins the food it’s put on. When used properly, the salt itself should hardly be tasted, if at all. Rather, it should serve to bring out the best of what’s already in the dish we’re eating.

Who wants to be the practically invisible helpers that, although important, are undetected for their good work when at their best? As a writer whose ego is closely married to the feedback I get for my work, it’s hard to imagine. And yet, that’s what Jesus tells his disciples during his Sermon on the Mount that they already are, and are to be in their ministry.

You’re unremarkable. There’s nothing particularly special about you. People like you are a dime a dozen.

Such words hurt, especially if we’ve grown up our entire lives being told that we’re amazing, special, remarkable little creatures. But what if we’re not? What if we, as Christians, are called to be the most common, unremarkable people in the world?

Well, that’s a humbling thought.

The problem lies in the misapprehension that our value is directly related to our uniqueness, that we have to stand out and make people gasp in amazement to be worth loving, or even worth existing. Could we even hear it if someone – say, even Jesus – told us we were common, and yet utterly important and loved?

Of course, there are those who are the jalapenos or fireworks among us. John the Baptist was hardly a regular guy, from what I can tell. But if we’re all clamoring to be the biggest, spiciest, noisiest new thing, all we end up with is garbage, white noise, nonsense.

Who among us will be common for God’s sake?

Christian Piatt is a Sojourners Featured Writer and an author, editor, speaker, musician, and spoken word artist. He is director of church growth and development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of Banned Questions About The Bible and Banned Questions About Jesus. His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

Image: Hands streteched toward lights, pukach / Shutterstock.com

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