In the fifth chapter of Matthew, Jesus is speaking to the disciples, and maybe a bit more of a crowd, too, and he tells them, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to God.”
My children like to spread out. You may have noticed, if you’ve ever sat near them in an alcove here at Saint Andrew, that though they are small, they can unfold their little bodies, stretch their limbs in every possible direction, and generally make their presence known. Maybe they’ve leaned on you in the process of seeing just how expansive their frames can be. I don’t usually worry about that here, because this place is filled with kind and generous and patient people.
But we were in a restaurant lobby recently, and when we arrived we were the only ones waiting, so my seven-year-old found an empty bench and laid down on it. More people came through the door, they were given longer waiting times and buzzers, and they looked around for seats.
I asked my son to sit up. He groaned, but he obliged – partly: he leaned his back against mine, but kept his legs sprawled out on the bench. People began to fill in the seats near us, some people glanced at him. I asked him to put his legs down, and he did – and then he flopped over, laying his head on what could’ve been some other guest’s seat. I was so frustrated – and so, you know, fearful of being judged – that finally I hissed at him, “Could you please just not take up so much space?”
And as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I regretted them. Because that’s the question I’ve heard in my own head so many times – my parents didn’t ask it of me, but I think so many people hear those words anyway, maybe not out loud, maybe especially girls, maybe especially when they’re young, or maybe especially everyone who has ever felt like their body or their hopes or their quirks or their fears or their passions or their ideas don’t quite conform. They try to make themselves smaller, less visible, less obtrusive, because there is always the echo of that question: “Is there any possible way you could just not take up so much space?”
Of course, there’s something to be said for giving space to others, for giving seats to the older people, balancing gingerly with the help of a cane in the restaurant lobby. And so I hugged Oscar close to me and I prayed that was all he heard me saying.
A few years back, a community theatre did a production of Godspell, that seventies Broadway musical based on the Gospel of Matthew. When the actors began the song whose lyrics are our verses for today – they poured off the stage and down into the audience, spreading their energy through the crowd, picking specific people to sing to.
A grinning cast member approached the woman who had the aisle seat in a row near the back – an older woman who’d come to the show by herself. The cast member took her hands in his, and sang to her, proudly, almost, like he’d written this line of the song, just for her, he sang, “You are the light of the world.” And he squeezed her hands, and he danced away. The woman lowered her hands back to her lap and stared at them for a minute. Then she turned to the man seated next to her, a stranger, and she told him, “Nobody’s ever called me that before.”
And this is not what the man seated next to her said in response, but it is one possible answer; he could have said: Of course they haven’t. No one has ever called you that before because scholars are scared of these verses, and they have effectively waged a campaign to complicate what appears to be some of the most straightforward language we ever get from our holy stories. They want to make Jesus’ words about Jesus, not about us…even though what he says is, “hey, you!” And in the original language, the “you” is emphatic.
But there are scholars who are equally emphatic that “Jesus is the only one who really shines in the Gospel of Matthew” – they’re writing about the transfiguration, that story where the disciples are standing away from Jesus, and they see him sort-of glowing, and hear a voice telling them to pay attention – “Jesus is the only one who really shines in the Gospel of Matthew, but through obeying his teachings, his followers can reflect that light from him.”
And another says, in John’s Gospel, Jesus tells his followers that he is the light of the world, so here in Matthew he’s extending that metaphor to include the listening crowd.
But no, he’s not. Jesus does not take an idea he had in John about himself and pass it on to the crowd in Matthew. The Gospel of Matthew is written down probably twenty years before the Gospel of John. And the writer of John is notorious for taking words the community spoke about Jesus and putting them in Jesus’ mouth instead, to give them authority. Which is to say “you are the light of the world” came maybe decades before “I am the light of the world.” And it’s likely that Jesus never said the latter. He didn’t much like to talk about himself.
So, why the work? Why the intense effort on the part of interpreters to make these verses say something they’re not?
Maybe because we have confused promise with pride, identity with egoism, celebration with conceit. We have been taught that it’s not polite to brag, that touchdown dances ought to be modest, that we should apologize before we offer an idea (“this probably won’t work…), that we should shrug it off when we receive a compliment (“this old thing?”).
And so we think that to believe that we are the light of the world – to live it – is to be in danger of taking up an awful lot of space. We think it sounds like talking about how great we are. The only one worthy of that sort of allowance would be Jesus.
But say you’re there. Say you’re on that hill long ago, that you’ve come out to hear this itinerant rabbi speak. Jesus isn’t that cast member from Godpsell. He doesn’t come to one old lady and take her hands and tell her that she is the light of the world. He could, and it would be true. But he says it to everyone gathered. Everyone. He does not know what they believe or how they behave and it’s almost as if he doesn’t care – he doesn’t need that to name them in this way.
He’ll go on, in this sermon, to give more instruction. These verses are the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, and it’s filled with imperatives: Be reconciled to each other, give your gifts in secret, pray this way, turn your cheek, do not worry, do not judge, do unto others as you would have them do to you. But before all of these, the very first imperative, the instruction from Jesus that precedes all the others is: Shine.
You are the light of the world. Shine.
The German poet Rilke writes that this has been the message since we first were human. In his telling of the creation story:
God speaks to each of us as God makes us,
Then walks with us silently out of the night.
And these are the words we dimly hear:
You – sent out beyond your recall –
Go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame,
And make big shadows I can move in.
Jesus is not telling people here who they are. He’s reminding them: You are the light of the world. That truth is at the core of our identity – light is the first word that God speaks into being at the creation and in the Psalms, it is the image of God’s own self. For these people, light is already part of their self-understanding and their theology. Jesus isn’t telling them who they are, he’s telling them what to do: let it shine.
And we need this imperative because in us, too, right alongside the light, lives the fear that threatens every day to snuff it out.
And light can be indiscriminate, which is why to shine is not to brag. It is much more vulnerable than that. We may have made peace with the idea that tragedy and triumph have equally brought us to this day and shaped who we are but still, for the life of me, if the light that I possess could only fall on the triumphs, please, that’d be preferable… As if there’s some way to separate them from the tragedy. Some way to only put forward our wholeness, while our brokenness hides in some dark place, unexposed.
But that can’t be what it means to shine – that can’t be what Jesus invites us to, because we are not light for ourselves. We are not called to bask in our own glow. The call here – the identity – is in us and it is removed from us. It is for the world. And the world, my corner of it, is not helped, it does not heal, by hearing only my success stories.
I’m a student; I’m working on my dissertation. And I say that like it’s an ongoing kind of activity, which is a lie. It is a fits-and-spurts, stops-and-starts kind of activity. It goes like this: I read a lot. I get an idea. I’m pretty scared of it because I think it’s great but what if it’s a really dumb idea, or what if it’s already been disproven, or what if somebody else had this idea twenty years ago and I tell it like it’s mine and only expose myself for not having read their work, which of course I should have already done?
So I work myself through all those scenarios and then I go to my advisor and I say: “I have this idea.” And he says to me: “This is a great idea. Get to work.” And I go home and sit down and work and work and work and pretty soon I think: who am I to be writing this? Where did this authority that I’m speaking with come from? I am a fraud, and if I ever find any place willing to publish this it will only be to expose me for the fraud that I am. I should stop now.
And then I do, and I wallow for a while, and then I drag myself back into my advisor’s office and I say: “I had this idea…” And he says: “It was a great idea. Get back to work.” And I go home again, and sit down again… And finally, after this cycle had played itself out too many times, I could barely meet my advisor’s eyes but I sat across from him and I said to him: “Here’s what happens. Here’s what happens when I come in to tell you my idea and you tell me it’s a great idea. Here’s what’s going to happen over the next six weeks…” And he listened to me, kindly.
And then, after I admitted all of this terrible, ongoing cycle, he did not tell me all over again that my ideas were good ones and that I should get back to work. Instead, this time, he said, “Yeah, me too.”
He said, “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t fear I’ll be exposed for a fraud. There is not a lecture that I give or an article that I write that I feel like I have any authority to do so. He said, I wish I could tell you that it goes away. That you’ll graduate and feel like you’ve earned it and be released from this anxiety. But everyone I know struggles with it every time they try to say or write or teach something that matters to them. It never, ever goes away.”
And somehow that confession – somehow the light falling there, not on my advisor’s publications or awards or tenure, but on his fear – the illumination of that convinced me that I could keep moving through it, too.
The writer and teacher and activist Parker Palmer says it’s no surprise that all the world’s wisdom traditions speak of fear: he says all of them originated in the human struggle to overcome this ancient enemy. And despite the diversity among the traditions, they all issue their followers this high calling: “Be not afraid.”
Palmer says that as someone who is no stranger to fear, he’s had to read these words with care to make sure he doesn’t twist them into a “discouraging counsel of perfection.” But be not afraid does not mean that we cannot have fear, he says. It means that we need not be the fear that we have.
What would it mean, to admit that we can both have fear and be light? That we can both take up space with our lives and create it for someone else? What would our lives look like if we let shine our true selves, not only what we were proud of but those moments that connected us to one another, in our weakness, in our sorrow, in our insecurity?
What if the good works that Jesus speaks of – the ones that others will see, and know God through, and praise God for – what if that goodness was nothing more than the way we embrace one another through our fears, the way we say, “yeah, me too,” and in so doing, light someone else’s path a little farther?
If we really want to live out the light that we are, it is probably not possible to control exactly where those beams will land, or what they will make visible. Probably some of our tragedies, and some of our triumphs, all at once. But what might your lit-up life make possible for someone else? God only knows.