Jesus’ Shortest Stories
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?
It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” — Matthew 5:13
I read the oddest book a couple of weeks ago. It’s called Ninety-Nine Stories of God, and that’s exactly what it is—99 stories of God. Some of them are two pages long and others just a couple of lines.
In one God-story, some friends get together regularly for drinks and a competition. They compete to see who can make the group cry with the fewest words. Someone offers this: “The last whale swam deeper.” Someone else quotes a line from Chekhov: “You mean, I’m being left behind?”
I think I have I’ve told you before about the shortest, saddest story I’ve ever heard: “For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Used.” A whole sad novel in six words.
Sometimes it seems as if Jesus is in a race to see how he can shape character in the fewest words. Some of his stories are full-fledged narratives with a beginning, a middle, a climax, and a denouement. “The Prodigal Son” might be the most perfect story ever told; in my Bible, it is about 500 words long.
But Jesus’ shortest stories are only a sentence or two. Jesus’ shortest stories are both short and small. That is to say, they are short stories about small things that have huge impact. He says, “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds that grows to become a huge tree.”
“The kingdom of God is like a sliver of yeast that makes the bread rise.”
“The Kingdom of God is like when a man finds a pearl of great price and sells all that he has to own it.”
“You are the salt of the earth,” he says. “You are the light of the world.” Jesus’ shortest stories are so short that he can tell us two of them in about 100 words. They are short stories about small things that have huge impact. They are so short and so simple and so small they barely need exposition, but that’s what you pay me to do, so I’m going to do it.
I just want to talk to you about two words in one of Jesus’ shortest stories. A verb and a noun.
The verb, of course, is ‘ARE.’ This seems so obvious, but it’s actually important. The verb is ARE, not SHOULD. This is an indicative, not an imperative. Can you hear the grace and respect and affection in the simplest, commonest, most matter-of-fact, state-of-being verb in the English language? Can you see the smile on Jesus’ face as he looks with hopefulness on this pulsating plethora of Palestinian peasants?
He is so confident about the future because these folks will give the earth its flavor. He just knows it, and so should you. If you are a follower of Jesus, you just ARE the stuff that will keep the earth from going BAD. You don’t have to do anything to be salt. You already ARE. Hear the grace and respect and affection in Jesus’ voice–for YOU.
So much for the verb. Now the noun: Salt. You see how this is the perfect image for Jesus to get his point across? Salt is the only rock human beings eat. It is made of sodium, an unstable metal that sometimes spontaneously combusts; and chlorine, a poisonous gas. But as a compound of flammable metal and poison gas, sodium chloride is a staple of all animal life.
Your body contains about 250 grams, as I speak—about four salt shakers worth—and it’s a good thing too, because circulation, respiration, and digestion would be impossible without it.
In the sixth century, the Moors traded gold for salt, ounce for ounce. An ounce of salt would get you an ounce of gold. The price of gold this morning, by the way, is $1,235.80 an ounce; Morton’s salt is 27 cents; things change.
Until about 100 years ago, early in the twentieth century, before guys like the Ball Brothers figured out how to heat and pack food in glass jars and tin cans, and before Clarence Birdseye came up with a way to freeze food in ice, salt was the main food preservative in every corner of the earth and therefore crucial to most human commerce.
Exorbitant salt taxes sparked revolutions in America under Jefferson and Adams, in France under Robespierre, and in India under Gandhi.
Salt has been so crucial to human existence and global commerce that it has crawled into every corner of every human language. Leafy vegetables are called ‘salad’ because you salt them. ‘Salami’ is salted meat. ‘Salzburg’ is ‘Salt Town’ in English because of the salt trade there. Your wages are called a ‘salary’ because Roman soldiers were once paid in salt. We call them ‘soldiers’—French for ‘salt-earner’—for the same reason. In Rome, a young man in love was called ‘salacious’—literally, ‘salted’—because romance has salted his mind with pornographic thoughts.
Salt is the perfect metaphor to get Jesus’ point across because it is so important—a sine qua non of human and animal life—and because he loves to tell short stories about small things with huge impact.
That is to say, you don’t need much salt to get the job done. Well, actually you do need a lot of salt to de-ice your roads, but Jesus didn’t know about that. You only need a little salt to season your food. In fact, too much salt is often a bad thing; it ruins the food and gives you high blood pressure. After destroying a city, conquering armies would salt the earth beneath so that nothing would grow in that soil.
So this just seems to me to be a timely word for the likes of you and me right here and right now. The other day in South Elgin a student hit 12-year-old Henry Sembdner so hard it put him into a coma. Why? Because Henry had bumped into him.
The other day in the Loop, a 31-year-old man slapped swastikas on the doors of a synagogue and broke out its windows with a bike lock. This guy doesn’t look like a lunatic; he is a CPA with a Master’s Degree from DePaul, that venerable Vincentian institution.
This week at a large public university not so far from here, someone sent a Valentine card, which read: “My love burns for you like 6,000 Jews.” Little photo of Hitler in the corner.
It just seems as if the haters for some reason think they’ve received permission to come out of the closet. Did you see Aziz Ansari’s monologue on Saturday Night Live about the lower-case ‘kkk.’? In the immortal words of Taylor Swift, ‘haters gonna hate,’ but it’s getting so bad that we can’t ‘shake it off’ any longer.
But maybe this will wake us up. All this has made me think longer and harder about Jesus’ graceful word to me, his affirmation of respect. “You are the salt of the earth,” he says to me this morning, with affection, with confidence. Not ‘Should.’ ‘Are.’ He just assumes I will be the salt of the earth, so that’s what I’m going to be.
Maybe Christians have been asleep. Maybe I have not been trying hard enough. “You are the salt of the earth,” says Jesus. But then he goes on: “If salt loses its taste, you throw it in the garbage.” Do you know the Greek word the NRSV translates as ‘loses its taste’? It’s μορονος (moronos), and you know what that means. Jesus calls the tasteless salt a moron. Stupid salt! It’s silly, it’s foolish, it’s insipid, it’s worthless, throw it in the garbage. Maybe I’ve been acting like a moron and now I need to wake up. This is my world, this is our country; let’s awaken it, season it, energize it.
I have to figure out what that means for me. You have to figure out what that means for you, but let me tell you two stories that inspired me, and then I’ll shut up.
Do you know who Bill Christopher was? Bill Christopher was the kind of guy we call “the salt of the earth.” Bill Christopher died on New Year’s Eve in Pasadena. He was 84 years old. He was born in Evanston and grew up in our community somewhere. He graduated from New Trier High School, Class of 1950, Ralph Smith’s class, by the way.
He was a great guy, but very gentle, and humble and unassuming. You probably know him best as Father Mulcahy, the Chaplain at the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital from the Korean War on the TV show M*A*S*H. Do you remember that beatific face with the little wire-rimmed glasses?
When he died, Loretta Switt—Hot Lips Houlihan—said, “He was TV’s quintessential padre. It was the most perfect casting ever known. He was probably responsible for more people coming back to church.”
Alan Alda—Hawkeye—said on Twitter: Bill’s strength, grace, and gentle humor weren’t acted. They were just Bill.” I was surprised. Here’s an actor playing a clergyman, but he’s not acting like the salt of the earth. He’s just being. My goodness, I don’t even know any real clergy who aren’t just acting when they’re being nice, just pretending to be sanctified.
When Mr. Christopher was not acting on stage and screen, he was figuring out ways to take care of his autistic son, who was severely disabled. Ned would be about 50 today, living in an institution. As a toddler, he was uncommonly bright, but he could not talk to people. Sometimes he would cry all day. Sometimes he would lick the pavement. His literacy was toddler level. Still, his father would do Indian Guides with him and Little League, and he devoted his offstage life to autism advocacy. So when I read that, I just decided I’m going to stop acting like, and just BE, the salt of the earth, which is what Jesus thinks I am.
One more. Ron McNair was born in the farming town of Lake City, South Carolina in 1950. He was a bright and curious kid who loved to read, especially books about astronomy and jet engines.
When he was nine, he took himself on a walk to the local library, and when he walked in, the whole place just stopped and stared. Ron goes through the stacks and finds himself a couple of books about stars and rockets and stands patiently in line to check them out. The librarian says, “What are you doing here? You know this is no place for coloreds.” “Ma’am,” says Ron, “I would like to check out these books.” She says, “Get out of here, or I’m going to call the cops. And your Mama.” Ron says, “I’ll wait,” and hops up on the counter.
When the police and his Mama arrive a few minutes later, the cops ask the librarian, “What’s the problem here?” The librarian says, “He’s colored and he wants to borrow the white books.” The cops say “Just give him the books.” His Mama says, “He’ll take good care of them.” The librarian, outnumbered and out-scrupled, checks out the books for him. His Mama says “What do you say, Ron?” Ron says, “Thank you, Ma’am.”
Seven years later, when Ron’s in his teens, a new television show comes on the air. It’s called Star Trek, and the crew of the Starship Enterprise is not only multi-racial, but multi-planetary, multi-galaxial. There’s Lieutenant Uhuru and Mr. Spock and other creatures of diverse tongue and varied hue and unearthly shapes. Most of them try to get along and work together “to explore strange new worlds…, to boldly go where no one has gone before.” Everybody except the Klingons.
Ron’s brother Carl says, “When that show came on, that was just science fiction. That ain’t gonna happen. They ain’t gonna put black people on no spaceship.”
But Ron didn’t think of it as science fiction. Ron thought it was science. He was valedictorian at his high school. He earned a Ph.D. in Physics from MIT. Then he went to work for NASA. He was the second African American in space.
Most of you know that he was on the Space Shuttle Challenger when it exploded on January 28, 1986. Do you remember what you were doing when the TV said, “We interrupt your regular programming…”? I do. I can still see that blue sky and that flash of light and that arc of smoke.
I’m not saying I’m going to be any good at it. I’m just going to try harder to be the salt of the earth, a little more adventurous, a little more pioneering; like Ron McNair, who thought Star Trek was science, not science fiction; and like those Lake City policemen who got a little black boy his first books about space at the local library, and got the whole thing started.
You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. You just are. Salt keeps food from going bad. So, keep America from going bad. Don’t be so afraid. Welcome the stranger. Embrace the other and the different. “Hate what is evil. Hold fast to what is good. Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.”
Joy Williams, Ninety-Nine Stories of God (Portland, OR: Tin House Books, 2016), p. 72.
This story is often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, but Wikipedia says the idea predates him by several years.
Details about salt in human history come from Mark Kurlansky’s comprehensive book Salt: A World History (New York: Walker & Co., 2002).
Quotes are by Liam Stack, “William Christopher, Father Mulcahey on M*A*S*H, Dies at 84,” The New York Times, January 2, 2017.