The Most Indispensable Thing – The Rev. Shannon Preston – Church Building

Text and audio available

There is an old folktale from India that tells the story of a king and his three daughters. One day, the king asks his daughters, “How much do you love me?”  The eldest answers, “Oh Father, I love you as much as all the jewels and sweet things of this land.”  He is pleased with this answer.  The middle daughter replies, “Father, I love you as much as all the dresses and fine scarves I have.”  He is pleased with this, too, as he knows this daughter likes these very much.  But the youngest, and his favorite, responds, “Father, how can I answer this? I love you, that’s all.”  He insists, “No daughter, now tell me how much do you love me?” And she says, “Well, I love you as much as salt, Father.”  He is outraged by this response and sends her away into the jungle.

In the jungle the daughter has several adventures, some dangerous, some beautiful.  Eventually, she encounters a prince who loves her, even though he thinks she is just a servant.  Together, they go back to his kingdom to be married.  The daughter invites her parents for the wedding and they arrive one week early.  For one week, they stay in their castle, and she gives them the finest food in the land but cooked without salt.  The Father recognizes the high quality of the dishes but the terrible taste.  At last, at the wedding, they are given food with salt and the father realizes just how much his daughter loves him.  He says, “My daughter is wise though she is so young and is the youngest of my daughters.  I know now how much she loves me when she said she loves me like salt.  People cannot eat their food without salt.   If their food is cooked with only sugar, we can only eat a small amount of it.  Salt is the flavor I hunger for, salt is the taste that lasts.  It is this daughter, I see now, who loves me most of all.”[1]

Forms of this tale can be found in most cultures: Pakistan, Italy, Austria, Russia, [2]  Appalachia,[3] Orthodox Judaism.[4]  All end with this recognition of just how much the daughter loves her father when she says I love you like salt.  Salt that gives taste to all things.  Salt that means more than jewels, or dresses, or sweetmeats and sugar—whatever the other daughters may have on their mind.  It is salt, the most basic, that shows how much he is loved.

Although I didn’t grow up with them, there are many folktales about salt.  Salt was once recognized for its immense value—it was used as currency.  It is essential for preserving foods.  Salt keeps away bacteria, fungi etc.: undesirables to us that cannot exist in a high salt environment.  Thus, we have pickles, canned beets, salted fish etc.  Salt has been used to cure foods for centuries.  It draws out the water preserving color, taste and freshness of meats.  Salt changes the nature of that which it interacts with.  In the north, it melts ice.  In the Dead Sea it enables us to float when we otherwise might not.  In Leviticus, it was instructed that salt be used in each sacrifice.[5]  Not only did it represent offering something valuable to God but, chemically, salt has a high burning temperature and can withstand fire longer than sugar or other common spices.[6]  And, of course, it is used to season, to add taste to food.  In a German folktale about salt they call it “The Most Indispensable Thing.”[7]

Today in our gospel Jesus shares a teaching using salt as the example. Of the salt sayings in our gospels, Matthew’s, following his beatitudes, is best known.  But Mark’s gospel, from which our passage comes today, says something different which I think our folktales of old can help us understand.

“For everyone will be salted with fire and every sacrifice will be salted with salt.  Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you restore its saltiness? Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.”[8]

This piece of our gospel opens with, “everyone will be salted with fire.” And these images of fire and salt are not something to dismiss. The fire, just spoken of in the verse before is the fire of hell, in Greek Gehenna, the land of judgment where the fire is never quenched. Our gospel says, we will not get away from this judgment or trial–we will all be seasoned by it.  We live in the world—out of Eden, as the tradition goes.  But we have, in this teaching, salt, which is good—this indispensable thing that stands against hell.

We see evidence of this salting with fire all around us.  The “world”, with its attractions to power, wealth, individuality, mistrust and division, attempt to pull us away from the “salt” –our simple essence as children of God—of goodness and faith.  We cannot escape the forces of hell entirely–we will be “salted” with these trials but we need not be lost in them.

The parable continues, “if salt has lost its saltiness how can you season it, how can you restore its saltiness?

We have an entire tradition that we can lean on that has pursued this essence of goodness amid influences, false goals and value systems that try to take us away from the core of faith given first to us by God. Spiritual teachers in the tradition help us uncover and strengthen this core in us to become “unshakeable” by these false influences around us.

This core of goodness in us—the salt we are seasoned with– is first cultivated and again and again restored by prayer. St Ignatius of Loyola, the 16th century founder of the Society of Jesus, known as the Jesuits, wrote a classic work about prayer called the Spiritual Exercises. While serving as a soldier in the Spanish army, Ignatius had a conversion to turn away from the world he loved—one of vanity, power, and wealth to follow Jesus. The Spiritual Exercises, are made to stretch our understanding of God in Christ through the imagination and were written originally for those who joined the society of Jesus desiring to cultivate a life lived closer to Jesus.  One of these spiritual exercises is known as the “Two Standards.” In it Ignatius asks us to consider two sides.  He begins, asking us to picture Satan, seated on a throne of fire, calling to us to fight on his side.  Satan lures us with things like wealth, lust, power, glory for our own sake. He entices us to take the attitude of “look at me and all I have done.”  We are to see and name what seduces us towards him.

Then we are to picture Christ standing in a great field, clothed, even armed with light. Christ who is gentle and humble in heart but loves with justice and mercy.  Christ invites us to the greatest freedom we can know—a love given to all, and a life that encompasses our deepest and truest freedom and the freedom of all those around us.

Once these two standards are pictured he invites us to see where we stand—how are we tempted—and pulled towards something other than Christ’s way? [9]  It recognizes the influences of “fire” as our gospel parable puts it in the world.  We are to recognize them, too—to offer a discerning heart, mind and eye when we open a newspaper, turn on the television, see an advertisement that seems troubling in some way– we are to build our recognition of these forces that are not God’s so as to help us move away from them and towards the values Christ gives to us to live by.  This is not an exercise simply to grumble about the state of the world nor about how bad we are—both of those perspectives still center on us.  Rather, it is to recognize how Christ call us back towards him.  It is a simple exercise that can reveal profound truths about how we live and help us to restore saltiness that may seem to have lost its taste, guiding us back to the freedom given to us by Christ.

Our parable concludes, “Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.”

The youngest daughter in our folktale knew what it meant to have salt in herself.  She was not distracted from this essential truth in her.  When her father sent her away she did not take back her response, she did not waiver despite the consequences she would be subject to. She saw clearly, and she showed him the power of salt and the “salt in her”.

Let us, too, ask for God’s help that we may have salt in ourselves, not to be shaken out by influences around us that are not from God and to be at peace with, act with love towards, one another.  For this is the “most indispensable thing” given to us first by God.

[1] “The Princess Who Loved Her Father Like Salt.” https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/salt.html#stokes
[2] https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/salt.html
[3] “As Meal Loves Salt. A Folktale. ”http://www.appalachianhistory.net/2017/04/as-meat-loves-salt-folktale.html Also, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tkxkLBL1d0o
[4] Children’s book retold by Nina Jaffe. The Way Meat Loves Salt, 1998.  http://www.picturebooksreview.com/2012/02/way-meat-loves-salt-1998.html
[5] Leviticus 2:13
[6] Miguel Figueroa, Properties Manager, helped to reproduce an experiment showing this at Good Shepherd. This video is not of that experiment:  Dhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E_q6OC1quSk
[7] “The Most Indispensable Thing.” https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/salt.html#bechstein
[8] Mark 9:49-50
[9] This exercise comes on the 4th day of the 2nd week of the exercises. St Ignatius of Loyola, The Spiritual Exercises. Translated by Thomas Corbishley, S.J. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. Page 52. A helpful online resource:  https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-spiritual-exercises/how-the-two-standards-meditation-can-help-outside-of-a-retreat