Table Lamp or City Lights?

By Alan Kreider

‘You are light for the world’ (Matthew 5:14). Unlike salt, to which a baroque complexity of interpretations has been attached, light has been less troubling to interpreters, lay and professional. It seems pretty obvious what light does! Nevertheless, differences remain.

Some stress that the light represents the Christian message - purity, knowledge, revelation, the truth of the gospel. Being light thus entails illuminating people through ‘evangelizing’. Others see the light less in terms of message than of the disciples’ corporate life: they are ‘the eschatological congregation of the faithful’.

What did Jesus mean when he first turned to his disciples and said that they were light? On one point, I think, it is possible to be pretty confident. Light, for Jesus, was a corporate image, not an individual one. Unlike salt, which was a scattering image, light was a gathering image. It had to do with his disciples’ life together.

Really? We’re so used to thinking otherwise, aren’t we? As I grew up I sang: ‘This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine!’ The chorus, like the culture that produced it, was individualistic.

But some people today intuitively sense that an individualistic reading misses the point. And they tend to be people whose life experiences have been most akin to those of first-century Galileans. Some of these have lived in Christian communities which are searching for new forms of corporateness. Others, such as Marcelino, a Nicaraguan peasant, have brought to the text the assumptions of a peasant society: ‘A lit-up city that’s on top of a hill can be seen from far away, as we can see the lights of San Miguelito from very far away when we’re rowing at night on the lake. A city is a great union of people, and as there are a lot of houses together we see a lot of light. And that’s the way our community will be. It will be seen lighted from far away, if it is united by love.’

Marcelino, I believe, is on the right track. He senses that the ‘city set on a hill’ (Matthew 5:15) is the key to a correct understanding of the ‘light for the world’ which precedes it. And his life experience makes sense of it. The church that he knows, like the city, is a corporate social reality. That is light for the world. And an individual will ‘be light’ only insofar as he or she participates in the community of light.

Shining Cities

If Marcelino had meditated on the Hebrew Scriptures as well as on the Gospels, he might have felt even more confident in his conclusion. Old Testament prophets were fascinated by the images of city and light: often they juxtaposed them. They did so in dark times. When some of them wrote, their nation was threatened by expanding empires: others of them prophesied amidst destruction and exile. But for a remnant of the people, if not for the entire nation, light and city were signs of corporate hope. And by means of this remnant, there would be hope for the entire human family.

How would this work? Let’s look at several texts to see. In Isaiah 2:2-4, ‘The mountain of the house of the Lord’ – Zion, Jerusalem, God’s city - will be ‘established as the highest of the mountains’. And then two things will happen. Something centripetal: the nations will be irresistibly drawn to the hill city that God ‘may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths’. Also something centrifugal: from the hill city will spread forth the Law of the Lord, and his Word and way. It will make a difference: the nations will beat their tanks into tractors!

A second sample comes from Isaiah 60. ‘Arise, shine’, the prophet commands the remnant, ‘for your light has come’ (60:1). The remnant constitutes a city - ‘the City of the Lord’ (60:14). Its lifestyle will be one of justice and shalom: it will be a violence-free zone, full of salvation and praise (60:17-18). And to its fullness of life the nations will be drawn irresistibly. ‘Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising (60:3). And everywhere, in this transfigured Zion, there will be the light of the Lord’s glory (60:2, 19).

Isaiah’s ‘servant songs’ are a third sample. In Isaiah 49:6, in language similar to Isaiah 42:6, the Lord addresses his servant: ‘I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth’. At last, to our relief, we’re thinking individualistically again! But are we? As many commentators have noted, the servant songs are both corporate and personal: their subject is both Israelite remnant and Messiah. And they/he are light. Despite the way they are initially despised and scorned by the nations, the light’s centripetal pull will be operating again: ‘Kings shall see and arise’ (49:7). It was with this text that the pensioner Simeon, holding the infant Messiah in his arms, blessed the Lord: ‘My eyes have seen your salvation…a light for revelation to the nations’ (Luke 2:30-31) – a Messianic reading of the text. But within a few years of the resurrection the Messiah’s followers were reading it corporately. They were claiming that the movement, founded and given shape by the Messiah, was ‘light for the nations’ (Acts 13:47).

Now, finally, let’s turn to Jesus himself. As we do so, let’s remember that he was speaking in dark times, in which his civilization and its religious institutions would soon be smashed by the military superpower of his day. Elsewhere he says, in language almost identical to Matthew 5:14, ‘I am the light of the world’ (John 8:12). But here, on the mountain, he turns to his disciples and says, ‘You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.’ As he does so, the wealth of Old Testament precedents is behind him. Equally, his followers’ eschatology has been shaped by these passages. Light, city, remnant - everyone knew that the fulfilment of these texts was to be in a renewed Jerusalem.

Except that, in Jesus’ surprising perspective, it wasn’t! About the Jerusalem of his day Jesus’ comments were both grieving and scathing (Luke. 13:34; 19:42-44; John 4:21). It was not there, in a geographical place, but in his followers, that the prophecies would be brought to fruition. In them, this little rump of a remnant, a common life based on the person and teaching and power of the Messiah would be realized. ‘The disciples corporately are the light of the world, occupying the function which belonged to Israel in the Old Testament dispensation.’ By their life together, which is true to the Messiah and his teaching, they will be light for the rest of humanity.

So the disciples must be light as well as salt: they must be gathered as well as scattered. Why? To illuminate: to show the world how to live. The world of the religious leaders and the Romans is dark: behind their appearance of inevitability and normality destructive forces are at work. Don’t be like them. Jesus says (Matthew 5:20, 47; 6:7, 32). They don’t know how to live. Jesus, in contrast, calls his followers to the startling and unsettling reality of his Kingdom. Its inversion of commonly accepted values is the way to live. In it, there is light: from the strange perspective of its citizens, the socially discordant, Sermon-on-the-Mount ways of dealing with anger, lust, truth, enemies and wealth are normal! Constituted by the Messiah’s person and teaching, the society of Jesus’ followers is a ‘contrast society’. It is not just a product of changing individuals: it is the construction of an alternative social order. Jesus’ followers will serve the world by being different from it, and by not being subverted by its ethos and customs. To paraphrase Paul, in his famous injunction on nonconformity to the Christian community in Rome, ‘When in Rome, don’t do as the Romans do’ (Romans 12:2).

Why not? Why be different? Why be resolutely committed to the way and teachings of Jesus? To illuminate the way; also to demonstrate in the practicalities of common life that there is an alternative. And further. Jesus says, for the sake of mission - to attract those who are watching. Not everyone, to be sure; as the successors to the prophets, these communities of alternative normality will experience rejection (Matthew 5:10-12). But others, seeing their attractive works, will be drawn to the light - the centripetal pull again! - glorifying God as they come (5:16).

But this, Jesus said, could go wrong. Just as the salt could lose its saltiness through compromise, the light could lose its effectiveness through invisibility. Jesus conveyed his concern with humour. ‘No one lights a lamp and puts it under a modios, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.’ A lamp under a modios? The very idea! A modios was a large wooden grain measure, containing 8.75 litres. But that, Jesus implied, is what the disciples might do. They might put his teachings to work in a new society, a Christian Qumran, which can only be approached by helicopter! Withdrawal from society, in Jesus’ perspective, is disastrous: it is as decisive a negation of his way as is compromised involvement in society. Far better to be salt, fertilizing shoots of growing goodness, and light, illuminating for the world the reality that Jesus’ way makes social sense.

Picture It

So what? What learnings can we take from this brief examination of salt and light? Four stand out in my mind. First, Jesus’ use of symbols is surprisingly powerful. I say surprisingly powerful because we often assume that propositions are more potent than images, that prose is more persuasive than poetry. But the role of ‘salt and light’ in the lives of countless Christians in recent years is convincing evidence to the contrary. Even though we may at times have misconceived their meanings, salt and light have been profound motivators for action. ‘Be involved!’ How lame that sounds in comparison to ‘Be salt!’ ‘Live together attractively!’ How limp that is next to ‘Be a city on a hill!’ And, come to think of it, this may well be the reason that Jesus preferred to communicate his teachings in parable and symbol. These reach into people’s motivational cores: they convert the heart. Like most of us, I was not taught to think in this way. But I believe that, for me and others, learning to follow Jesus means learning to think and talk like he did -- in symbols that will tease the brain and move the heart.

Second, I am impressed that Jesus, in his salt and light teaching, anticipated the two classic methods by which Christians, throughout their history, have limited the power of his Kingdom teaching. Although both of these methods have been practised by many groups, we can, for the sake of abbreviation, call these the ‘mass church’ deviation and the ‘sectarian’ deviation. The mass churches have tended to reflect uncritically the values of their cultures: while being socially ‘responsible’ their salt has often had scant resemblance to Jesus’ Kingdom teachings. In them, sanctified worldly wisdom has reigned supreme. Sectarian groups, on the other hand, have at times rejected the major values of the wider society; but they have created communities that, in their attempts to take Jesus’ teachings seriously, have often been isolationist and withdrawn. And this is the rub - they have not taken their responsibility to be light seriously enough to be commitedly visible. Their truth has not been what Lesslie Newbigin calls ‘public truth’. So, whatever our tradition, Jesus’ teaching on the mountain comes to us as a challenge. Because the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, we must repent – of our compromise, of our isolationism, or (alas) of both!

Third, it is striking to me that, in speaking of salt and light, Jesus was inviting his disciples to put into action a coherent social strategy. Together salt and light make sense! Salt – how hard it is for us scattered disciples to remain distinctive. In our jobs we are specialized, seeing only a part of the picture and passing the buck; we also are socialized, shaped by the dominant assumptions and the esprit de corps of our groups of colleagues. As a result, it is not surprising that our society is characterized by imprisoned expertise’. What we do often bears slender relationship to God’s Kingdom.

There is, however, an antidote for this: participation in the light of God’s ‘city set on a hill’. At its best, every congregation will be a ‘community of discernment’, to which people can bring their workaday doubts and dilemmas. In addition, every congregation will be a ‘community of solidarity’, in which Jesus’ followers receive new courage to do difficult tasks in his way; for they are not alone. And most profoundly, every congregation will be a ‘community of virtues’. There it is normal not to be consumerist or competitive, it is normal to share with poor people, it is normal to be hungry for justice and to love enemies. Public opinion to the contrary, it is Jesus’ ways that are normal.

So in the light-filled city we are socialized to think and react in new ways; we participate in a group that is developing new reflexes which we will carry with us into our everyday tasks. This is the way to remain salty – by being light. This is the way for our congregations to be bearers of visible light – by having members who are resolutely salty. To be either, according to Jesus’ strategy, we’ve got to be both! Any discussion of ‘salt and light’ must therefore deal with the life and witness of our churches quite as much as it deals with the jobs and commitments of individual believers.

He means us

Finally a point from which I hope we will receive both comfort and admonition. I have begun both of these articles with a significant misquotation. Jesus does not say ‘Be salt and light!’ He addresses his followers not in the imperative but in the indicative. ‘You are salt: you are light.’ What? We can imagine his followers scratching their heads. ‘Does he mean us?’

Jesus did mean them. He looked at his disciples; he knew them, carbuncles and all: he anticipated how they would treat him – and each other. Nevertheless, Jesus said that they were salt and light. Jesus had confidence in his disciples; he believed in them. And his belief and intercessions have unlocked immense reserves of worship-filled obedience and service. In the same way, Jesus believes in us as salt and light.

But there is another sense in which Jesus’ simple statements are more disturbing. Jesus, in affirming that you are salt and light, is stating a fact of discipleship. We, because we are following him, are salt and light. The question is: what kind of salt are we – salty, or unsalty? What kind of light are we – hidden or visible? Can we, as members of one of the most individualistic cultures in world history, be light at all?

So implicit in Jesus’ statements are questions. As we, as individuals and groups, answer these, we will discover these humble symbols coming to life – and God’s Kingdom coming amongst us.

This article was first published in Third Way, October 1988 pages 14-16.