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Light of the World

by Brant Pitre January 10, 2020 0 Comments


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Alright so that is the salt of the earth.

What about the light of the world?  This one is a little easier to understand, especially if you know the Old Testament prophets.  If you go back, for example, to the prophet Isaiah, on a number of occasions in Isaiah chapters 42 and 49, the prophet Isaiah describes Israel as being called by God to be a “light to the nations.”  This image here is of Israel shining the light of truth, shining the light of the covenant, shining the light of the law upon the darkness of the many nations — the Gentile nations of the world — who were caught in not just immorality, but idolatry and a general ignorance of the ways of God, of the revelation of God, of the law of God, and of the worship of God.  So Israel's vocation wasn't simply to be the chosen people of God, as if Israel was chosen and the Gentiles were rejected.  No!  Israel was chosen by God for the salvation of the world, like in the book of Exodus 19 God says, “I want you to be a kingdom of priests,” and in Exodus 4 he says, “Israel is my firstborn son.”  What does that mean?  Well it means Israel is the first born son, but the rest of the Gentiles are like the second and third born.  They are the younger sons in the family of God and Israel's vocation is to be the example, to be the shining light, to be a light to the nations.

So in the Sermon on the Mount, what Jesus is doing is basically revealing to the disciples, “you are the new Israel, you are the true Israel of God and I'm calling you to be a light not just to the nations, to be the light of the world.”  Now if you have any doubts about that, the image of a city set on a hill confirms it.  If you look in the book of Isaiah 2 or 60, or Micah 4, the new Jerusalem spoken of by the prophets, this great and glorious city of Jerusalem that would come about in the new creation, in the new heavens and the new earth, is often described as being raised up at the top of the mountain, as set upon a great mountain, the highest of all the mountains of the earth.  So the city set on a hill is an image of the new Jerusalem.  So the disciples here are called to be the new Israel and to be a new Jerusalem, and just like Israel was called to be a light to the world, Jesus is basically saying to them that they are going to be the example that leads the nations, the Gentile nations, to right worship, to true faith in God, and to the new law of the Gospel.

Now with that said — with those Old Testament allusions out of the way — Jesus uses what appears to be a somewhat more mundane example.  He just basically uses an image of a household lamp.  So he's describing here probably a small wicker oil lamp that was common at the time, which people would put up in a house on a lampstand to give light to the house in darkness.  Well Jesus says here, “no one lights a lamp and then sticks it under a bushel basket,” right!?  That would defeat the purpose.  Just like salt without flavor defeats the purpose of even using salt, a light under a bushel basket defeats the whole purpose.  So their task of being the light of the world is to let their light shine before others.  How do they do this?  Notice something very interesting here in verse 16, Jesus says “let your light shine before men, so that they may see” what?  What exactly is it the disciples are called to shine before others? 

Jesus is very explicit here, it's their good works.  The Greek word here is kala erga.  It is very explicit: good works.  Why do I emphasize that?  Well because in some Christian traditions there is a rejection of the idea that works have any value whatsoever.  The idea going back to Martin Luther was that we are saved by faith alone and works don't have any importance whatsoever.  You definitely don't see that kind of theology in the Gospels when you look at Jesus.  Jesus is very often emphasizing the critical role that good works are going to play, not just in the salvation of an individual person’s soul, but in the salvation of the world.  So he is saying that the good works of his disciples are precisely the visible means that are going to draw other people into the kingdom — into the kingdom of God.  And the goal of performing these good works — he makes clear here — is not so that each individual person would get glory, but so that God the Father might be glorified.  So there's no tension here between this statement and, as we will see later in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus will say “don't perform your good work so that others may see them, but do it in secret.”  We will get to that a little bit later, but there he is going to be talking about particular works of piety that people can be tempted to do in order to get others to think that they’re holy.  That is going to be a danger that he will address, but right here he's just talking about what we would call evangelization — bearing witness to the whole world about the truth of the good news, about the truth of the Gospel and the new law of Christ.  By living the new law of Christ that he is giving on the Sermon on the Mount, they will bring about the salvation that the prophets spoke of in the book of Isaiah and the rest of the Old Testament.

Another thing, by the way, someone might say “wait a second, there's a contradiction here, because in the Gospel of John 8 Jesus says ‘I am the light of the world’” (chapter 8:12).  So is Jesus the light of the world or are the disciples the light of the world?”  The answer is yes, it’s both, it’s both-and, it’s a classic Catholic both-and.  It's not that Jesus is the light or we are the light, it is both.  The light that the disciples are going to shine in the world only comes through their union with, an imitation of, Jesus.  He is the source of all of the light of the Gospel, but it is going to shine through his disciples and out into the world because of them.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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