This morning I read a passage that is very familiar to me, and to many others. Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, speaks these words:
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Mt 5.14-16).
Jesus is very clear here; there doesn’t seem to be much to elaborate on. Then I discovered a cross-reference that pointed out how Jesus uses the same metaphor of the lamp in two other seemingly unrelated passages. In Luke we read:
“No one lights a lamp and puts it in a place where it will be hidden, or under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, so that those who come in may see the light. Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are healthy, your whole body also is full of light. But when they are unhealthy, your body also is full of darkness. See to it, then, that the light within you is not darkness. Therefore, if your whole body is full of light, and no part of it dark, it will be just as full of light as when a lamp shines its light on you” (11.33-36).
In the Matthew passage, the light on the stand is the visible witness of Jesus’ followers as they act as transformed people of God. In the Luke passage, however, the lamp changes from shining light outward for all to see, to shining it inward to penetrate the darkness of one’s soul. For Matthew, to put the lamp under a basket is to dim the light of Jesus shining out from us to be a witness in the world; for Luke, to put the lamp under a basket is to limit the potential for the light of God’s truth to shine into our interior lives.
At first I was confused. Jesus seemed to be using the same metaphor to speak of two very different, even opposite things. But then I realized that they are actually linked, even dependent upon one another. Much of what Scripture speaks about when it reflects on the Christian life is the centrality of being transformed from the inside first, which then leads to powerful witness. For example, Jesus speaks about himself as the true vine, from whom we as little branches draw our life and energy. And he warns that if we sever ourselves from him, we can do nothing (Jn 15.4). Likewise, it is no coincidence that many of Paul’s letters begin with a theology section that describes the new life the Christian has in Christ before it moves into a section of how to live. For the Christians, ethics is rooted in ontology: we live in the way God desires us to live because we are fundamentally new beings in Jesus (2 Cor 5.17). The “therefore” in Romans 12.1 marks this transition between identity and how that influences our actions. Colossians 3:1-5 forms a similar hinge point in that letter.
In my mind, the metaphor in Luke logically precedes the metaphor in Matthew. The reality of the light of Jesus shining into our lives and dispelling all the darkness, must first happen before the light of Jesus can shine out of us. If the darkened life is dark indeed, what light can be reflected outward? Our hiddenness can dim our witness. When we refuse to let the light into all the dark corners of our soul, we take the lamp from the stand and put under a basket; we black out the windows of the city on the hill.
And then there is a third use of the lamp metaphor.
He said to them, “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open” (Mk 4.21-22).
If the light on the stand is used to uncover and disclose, should Jesus’ followers themselves not also be exposed? Our failures and follies and foibles must surely be made known to us by God who knows all. And if we would dare to try to reflect the light of Jesus back to others like lights in a city on a hill or a lamp on a stand in the middle of the house, our sins and imperfections will surely also be seen. But if we endeavour to hide and withdraw into shame and hiddenness — if we try to not let the light uncover and reveal as it ought to — then it cannot shine out either.
I say “cannot” but that is not fair, really. From a human point of view, in which it is all up to us, my screw ups would certainly spell the end of any witness I might have. (Incidentally, it is precisely when we buy into the “it’s-all-up-to-us” view that we are most prone to hid our stuff, which just dooms the potential for true witness). But the success of Jesus’ witness, as much as we become his partners in this mission, does not depend on us getting it right. Sometimes, it actually depends on us getting it wrong. Because Jesus’ light shines out from us in spite of our brokenness and darkness, and Jesus’ light shines out from us because of our brokenness and darkness. If you took a clay pot and smashed it, put it back together with super glue, and then put a lit candle inside and placed it in a dark space, the light would shine through all the cracks. The light would actually be more visible than if the jar were entirely sealed and flawless. Tbis is the way of grace and what keeps us moving in spite of ourselves. This is not to suggest that we linger in darkness and deliberately wander away. Paul writes: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!” (Rom 6.1-2). The light of Jesus shining into us and out of Jesus is mean to dispel the darkness. It is meant to renew and reinvigorate and release. And when we experience that, we will be great witnesses for Jesus, because we then speak about a redemption we know first hand — one that depends entirely on Jesus, but invites us to be partners in the project.