Whenever I hear this passage, I think of that song I was taught as a child and with which many of you are familiar: “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.” But there is a major problem with that song-especially if it has this passage in mind. The problem is the first-person pronouns “mine and I”. Like so much in our culture, we think of our Christian witness in individualistic terms. And as we shall see, that is the exact opposite of what Jesus was trying to communicate with his metaphor of light. Did you notice what Jesus said right after his announcement that we are the light of the world? “A city built on a hill can’t be hid.” In commenting on this passage, Marcelino, a Nicaraguan peasant participating in one of the communal Bible studies which characterize much of Christianity in Central America, says, “A lit-up city that’s on top of a hill can be seen from far away, just as we can see the lights of San Miguelito from 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 are a lot of light. That’s the way our community will be. It will be seen lighted from far away if it is united by love.”
I believe Marcelino is correct. “A city set on a hill” is the guiding image in our interpretation of the light of the world. We can be light for the world only as we participate in the community of light.
Now it’s important to see where Jesus got these images. They come from the Old Testament prophets. Often these spokespersons juxtaposed city and light in their messages. They usually prophesied in dark times, when Israel was threatened by both giant empires without and idolatry and injustice within. As a sign of hope, the prophets spoke of a redeemed Jerusalem as God’s city set on the highest hill, radiating light and drawing the nations to the presence and salvation of God. The faithful remnant which would survive judgment will come together in Zion and brighten the paths for the whole world, paths which shall lead to peace, justice, and the righteousness of God.
Perhaps the most elaborate example of these two images of city on a hill and light is found in Isaiah 60. The prophet begins, “Arise, shine. For your light has come. Nations shall come to your light and rulers to the brightness of your dawn.” Of course, the city being referred to was Jerusalem.
Later the prophet says, “They shall call you the City of the Lord, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel. The sun shall no longer be your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night. But the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory.” In this transfigured Zion, the light of the Lord’s glory will shine for the whole world.
And in Isaiah 49 we find the same image. God addresses Israel, “I will make you a light for the nations that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth. Kings will arise when they shall see you.” In all these passages, light exerts a centripeta1 force pulling and gathering the peoples of the world to God. Like a redeemed, transfigured city Jerusalem attracts those on the outside and calls them to join a blessed community.
This was the background of Jesus’ usage of “the light of the world” metaphor: light, city on a hill, remnant. And Jesus too was speaking in a dark age–a violent, oppressive, cruel time. But Jesus made a surprising, radical change in the metaphor used by the Old Testament prophets. Whereas God’s spokespersons thought of Jerusalem itself (the literal city) as being the “light of the world” which would draw the nations to God), Jesus saw his disciples as that community of light. It was not in a geographical place but in a fellowship of Jesus’ followers that the glory of God would be revealed. In this little rump of a remnant gathered at Jesus feet as an alternative community, the light would shine.
And at this point we come to one of the most important aspects of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and everywhere elsewhere for that matter. Often, we read these chapters about loving our enemies, sharing our wealth, and other commandments regarding radical discipleship, and we think, “I can’t do all that. Even if I try. I will fail. I’m not good enough, strong enough. loving enough to be that faithful.” And you know what? When you or I say that, we are absolutely right. Individually, we don’t have a snowball’s chance in August of being faithful. But together, with the power of the Holy Spirit in our midst, we can love and challenge each other to miraculous obedience. Now if Jesus’ words had been translated by a southerner who used the language patterns of the South, we would maybe see this point more easily. Jesus did not say, “You (individually) are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.” The pronoun used is second person plural: “Y’all are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.” Individually we can’t fertilizer a square inch or season half a teaspoon or light up a corner. But together, we can transform this earth and light up the world for God as we allow God’s power and love to flow through us.
How can we cope with a violent, vulgar, materialistic, selfish, shallow world? We feel helpless, don’t we? I know so often I do. How can we let our children know there is an alternative? By being together as that alternative and by gathering together as God’s contrast society. Marcelino in Nicaragua and his Christian brothers and sisters serve as splendid examples of such powerful examples of Jesus’ collective God movement. Until we are willing as a community of faith in Jesus Christ to be the light of the world and a city set on a hill and not some defensive fortress but a dynamic fellowship showing the world the way, we shall continue to flounder. We shall totally miss Jesus’ point that his way is to be lived in the strength, truth, and love of authentic community. It was never meant to be the Lone Ranger faith we are so prone to embrace in our culture. (After all, even the Lone Ranger had Tonto!) Gathered together, we are the light. United in love and purpose, we are the city set on a hill.
Together, as Jesus intended all along, we can be a community of truth, strength, and love for one another and the world. We can be a fellowship of authentic solidarity, a real counterculture, and God’s family representing that final city coming down out of heaven from God when all the nations of the earth will be healed–when the distinctive righteousness of God will penetrate every part of creation–and where there will be no need of sun or moon, for we shall all shine with the glory of God.