Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Lent day 4 (Saturday) — Light
[Y’all] are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. (Matthew 5:14-15 CEB)
Read these verses slowly. Then read my reflections. Then come back and read these verses slowly again. Ponder the visual images the words evoke.
- “Y’all.” I’ve made a different translation choice here, because we don’t have a similar pronoun in English. Jesus addresses the disciples as a group (y’all) and, by extension, the rest of us. Remember, Matthew’s Jesus is talking to the church, the ekklesia, which means “the called-out ones.” Jesus says your called-out prophetic community is the light of the world.
- In John’s gospel, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world” (8:12). Here, he says, “Y’all are the light of the world.” I think both of these theological perspectives are important, and true in their own way. It reminds me that this prophetic community we call “church” is supposed to embody Christ’s presence (light) for the world.
- “A city on a hill.” Keep in mind that in Jesus’s day, people walked everywhere. They were more aware of hills and the actual shape of the land than we are because they didn’t drive. They hiked to cities on coasts, in valleys, and up hills. Lost? You don’t have a GPS. Look to see if there is a village or city on a nearby hill.
- Some cities like Magdala, Capernaum, and Tiberias were built on the coast. Jerusalem and Nazareth were built on hills. When Jesus says these words, his audience probably thought of specific places with specific walls and rooftops—not some abstract ideal.
- A city on a hill is obvious. It is a place of refuge. Its lamp and firelight in a pre-electric society would have portended safety for travelers.
- So, lamps. Specifically, oil lamps. There are two reasons putting an oil lamp under a basket is a bad idea: first, it is a waste of light and fuel. Second, it is a fire hazard. In Luke’s version of this saying (8:16), Jesus adds that you don’t put an oil lamp “under a bed.” Putting a burning oil lamp under your bed is suicidal!
We don’t usually read this verse as being a warning, but I think there is an implied danger here. If the prophetic community doesn’t shine its light in public, if it doesn’t tell God’s truth to the world, there will be terrible consequences. Maybe it will be the fire of revolution, or maybe it will just be spiritual heat and smoke. Either way, “hiding your light” does not mean merely failing to shine.
- We don’t light a lamp to look at the light. We light a lamp to see BY the light. The light in verse 15 is generous. It “shines on all in the house.” Light does not shine discriminately. It falls on everyone and everything. It lets us see the dirt as well as the beauty.
- Again, keep in mind Jesus is talking about the prophetic community, not just individuals. When I read that the prophetic community gives light to all in the house, I hear Jesus saying, “Because of y’all, others can see what is real and true.”
Okay. Now go back and read the passage again slowly. Does anything change for you?