“You are the Light of the World”
Dr. Elizabeth E. Shively, 5 February 2017
Isaiah 58:1-12 / Psalm 112:1-9 / Matthew 5:13-20
In Shakespeare’s plays the fools appear to be madmen. But they are often the wisest of all the characters. King Lear’s fool is saner than any one else in the play, and the only one who is unafraid to tell the truth. The King is the one who has gone soft in the head and can’t see reality clearly. He can’t judge what is evil and what is good, and so he gives his kingdom to his evil daughters and disowns the good one. Through his jokes, the Fool speaks truth to the king in order to expose his daughters’ true character. And so the Fool is much more than comic relief. He is a prophetic voice. He seeks to illuminate the injustices and corruption of the king’s reign. He is a light in the king’s dark world.
Jesus tells his followers, “You are the light of the world.” Similar to the fool, God’s people are called to be truth-tellers not only through words but also through deeds that illuminate a darkened world with the grace of God’s redemption in Christ. And similar to the fool, God’s people have even at times appeared to be madmen. But, according to the apostle Paul, God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.
Our passage for this morning sits towards the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, just after the Beatitudes. The Sermon on the Mount represents Jesus’s first major teaching in Matthew’s Gospel. He has announced the nearness of the kingdom of heaven and has called his first disciples from the task of fishing for fish to the task of fishing for people. He has shown these disciples what this new kind of fishing looks like by preaching the good news of the kingdom and manifesting its power through gracious acts of healing.
Then, Jesus climbs a mountain with the crowd he has so electrified trailing behind him. He sits down in the posture of a teacher, encircled by his newly minted disciples. They are the primary targets of his instruction, as he passes along to them the principles of life in the kingdom he has come to bring.
It is tempting for us to read detached excerpts from this Sermon as isolated sayings, like nice inspirational quotes. Indeed, the Sermon on the Mount is probably a compilation of things Jesus said on different occasions attached perhaps to an excerpt from a longer discourse. But Matthew compiled Jesus’s sayings into one coherent sermon and he fit it into his Gospel. This means that the parts of the sermon relate to one another; there is a certain logic to it.
This is important as we consider Jesus’s words, “You are salt of the earth; “You are the light of the world.” I’d like to reflect for a moment on who the you are. On one level, their identity is rather obvious. They are Jesus’s audience – the disciples, the larger crowd, and Matthew’s audience (us). But there is another level at work here in the text. Let me explain.
The Beatitudes immediately precede these words. In the Beatitudes, Jesus reveals that “blessedness” is one of the key principles for embracing the radical way of life to which he calls his followers. It is a refrain that runs throughout: blessed, or fortunate, are those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who are meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are persecuted.
These various conditions of the “fortunate” are variations on the same theme. The language is from the Old Testament, where the poor in spirit, the mourners, and the meek aren’t those with generally virtuous dispositions. Instead, they are the ones who suffer because of their radical commitment to God’s righteousness and justice. They put up with insult, slander, and abuse in a hostile world because they stand for God and speak his truth. They refuse to abandon God’s commands even when they see their abusers flourishing. Psalm 37 for example, explains what it means to be meek: “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil. For those who are evil will be destroyed, but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land. A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found. But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity.” This also describes the “blessed” of Psalm 112 in our responsive reading for today. They may look like fools; people may say they are madmen. But the meek know that their abusers will only flourish only for the moment, because God’s justice will prevail and God’s people will flourish forever. They endure hardship to stick with God because they take the long view.
Now Jesus reiterates that those who suffer for their radical commitment to God’s righteousness and justice are fortunate because God is on their side both now and in the future.
The beatitudes speak about a general group: “blessed are those who…” and fill in the blank. The final one is, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” But then Matthew has Jesus explain this final beatitude in personal terms: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” Jesus continues, “In the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Those who stand for Jesus are in the line of the prophets who stood for God and spoke his truth, receiving insult, slander and abuse in a hostile world. They may look like fools; people may say they are madmen. But they endure hardship because they take the long view.
Now we come to our passage for this morning, where Jesus continues to speak in personal terms: “You are the salt of the earth; You are the light of the world.” The “you” are the mournful, the meek, the thirsty, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted for righteousness’ sake. The “you” are those who receive insult, slander and abuse because they stand for Jesus, as the prophets stood for God. The “you” are Jesus’s disciples. The “you” are all of us. The “you” are the fools, the madmen. In short, the “you” are all who fulfill their prophetic witness to God’s redemption in Christ as lights in a dark and hostile world.
Jesus uses images like “salt” and “light” to stir his audience’s imagination about what it means to live prophetically in this sort of dark and hostile world. Salt and light have this in common – they aren’t useful for their own sake, but in relation to something else. We don’t eat salt alone; it makes something else tasty, and in antiquity, it kept food from spoiling. In the same way, we don’t gaze on light alone; light makes makes something else bright. In fact, without light we can’t see.
Maybe you remember a time when you were afraid of the dark? Perhaps when you were a child? In the house where I grew up, the boiler room was just outside my bedroom, and I could hear the furnace click on in the middle of the night. It would be pitch black in my room. When I heard the grumbling noise, I imagined what sort of monsters might be lurking there in the dark, where I couldn’t see. When a room is dark, objects are there, but we either can’t see them properly and that they take on fanciful likenesses, or we can’t see them at all. When we turn on the light, the objects are exposed because we can see the room as it really is. When Jesus tells his followers that they are the light of the world, he means for them by their actions to make God’s truth and righteousness and justice visible in a dark world in a way that can’t otherwise be seen.
This is a bit shocking if we think about it, because in another context Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” The Gospel of John uses the image of light to describe Jesus himself, who became the light of the world so that we can see – or understand – God. It is as C. S. Lewis wrote in his 1947 book Miracles, “We believe that the sun is in the sky at midday in summer not because we can clearly see the sun (in fact, we cannot) but because we can see everything else” (p. 133).” In Jesus we receive grace and light to see – or apprehend – God and his truth and righteousness and justice, and then he sends us into the world as beacons of light. This kind of light-shining is part of the church’s prophetic mission.
In the context of our reading from this morning, Isaiah speaks about the need for this kind of light-shining as something that begins with God’s own people. He speaks about a society that harms itself because of the way God’s people treat each other. They want to draw near to God, so they fast and seek his righteous judgments, but they wonder why God can’t see them and why they can’t see God. The people say, “There is no righteousness nor justice, we wait for light, and lo! There is darkness; and for brightness, but we walk in gloom. We grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon as in the twilight…We wait for justice, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far from us” (Isa 59:9-11). How can a group of people like this be a light to the world? The problem is that while they fast, they practice injustice and oppression and serve their own interests. And so Isaiah speaks God’s truth into the dark world: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard” (Isaiah 58:6-8).
In Jesus, we have now received light and grace so that our light may break forth and our healing may spring up. We no longer have to grope around like the blind, but are able to see the Lord’s righteousness and justice. Jesus says that he has come to fulfill, not abolish the law and the prophets. That is, his coming is the culmination of the Law and the Prophets – like Isaiah. But also, his teaching fulfills the law by intensifying its commands. This is exemplified in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, where the refrain is, “You have heard it said…but I say to you.” Jesus calls his followers to acts of mercy, kindness, sharing, and other selfless deeds, similar to Isaiah’s call to God’s people. Jesus teaches about the sort of prophetic good works of justice and righteousness that he expects from his followers. And, in is very own deeds, most especially in giving up his own life for the sake of others, he demonstrates what it looks like to love God and love one’s neighbor self-sacrificially.
Because we have received light and grace from Jesus we have a responsibility to serve a dark and graceless world. If we don’t speak and don’t act, we are like a lamp over which a bushel basket has been placed. The lamp – in this case, likely a candle – wouldn’t simply be hidden, it would be extinguished. This is a malfunction or misuse of the lamp, since Jesus says that no one lights a lamp just to put it out. Likewise, for Jesus’s disciples not to act prophetically is a malfunction or misuse. We have not received light and grace from Jesus in order to remain in darkness. Jesus calls us out of darkness into the light in order to shine in the world, to make God’s truth, righteousness and justice visible in what we do.
In this politically-charged climate, the church’s prophetic ministry is all the more important. And in this politically-charged climate, there are so many words. Our News outlets, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram feed – they are full of words. We don’t even need to have a full conversation, but can and take a stand using hashtags.
But Jesus doesn’t simply want our words; he wants our actions. He calls for our good deeds to light up the world, to make us stand like a city on a hill, and glorify our Father in heaven. The well-put opinion piece I post on my Facebook page simply does not have the same prophetic force as my personal presence that replicates the self-sacrificial love of Christ. My actions may then give power to my words. Let’s fulfill our prophetic witness to God’s redemption in Christ as people of faith, beginning with acts of kindness, mercy and forgiveness in the spheres of our families, workplaces, neighborhoods, towns, and expand from there. We may be taken for fools and madmen. People may insult us, persecute us, or falsely say all kinds of evil things against us. But we must take the long view, and rejoice, because the kingdom of heaven is ours.