“You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.” —Matthew 5:14-16 (NLT)
There comes a point in every child’s life when the adults think you’re still a child, but you know better. You’ve reached the age, you say to yourself, where you can make your own decisions, especially about bedtime. You’ll probably lose the argument, but they can’t make you actually go to sleep—if you have a Boy Scout flashlight, that is.
My Boy Scout flashlight with the right-angled head and the super-duty D-cell batteries was perfect for reading under the covers after Mom tucked me in. Many was the night when I read the Hardy Boys in secret, Mom never suspecting a thing.
Except for surreptitious nocturnal reading, I can’t think of a reason to light a light and then hide it from view. Jesus’ listeners would have laughed at the idea.
What Jesus’ listeners had in common with us today is the knowledge that light is useful, especially when the sun has gone down. Those folks would have been amazed at how easily we throw light into the darkness today, but they would have perfectly understood the desire to light up dark places. It’s an instinct that’s been with humanity since the discovery of fire.
Light here is obviously a metaphor. The “light” he wants his listeners to shine are “good deeds,” acts of generosity, kindness, justice, and love. The parable of the good Samaritan is about taking care of a stranger who has been injured. The parable of the King demanding repayment of debts is about forgiveness. Jesus encouraged good deeds that come from a pure heart, and here in Matthew he’s appealing to an ancient understanding between God and Israel, that their behavior should be different than what was typical in the day. They should “love their neighbors as themselves,” and in doing so their goodness would not only be a light to the nations, but would proclaim the good character of their God.
“Listen to me, my people. Hear me, Israel, for my law will be proclaimed, and my justice will become a light to the nations. —Isaiah 51:4 (NLT)
Sometimes the actions of children reflect badly on their parents. We can wonder, when a young person commits some terrible act, what sort of home they were raised in, what sort of instruction they received growing up, and what their parents are like. It isn’t always a fair set of questions, but we know from experience that there is too often a link between the moral example of parents and the values a child learns.
Likewise, when a Christian acts in a way that advances darkness rather than light, those watching can’t be blamed for wondering what sort of faith this is. I guess I can think of one reason we might hide our lights under a basket: to give us the opportunity to dabble in darkness.
“Let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.” We live in the light because it’s who we are in Christ. We avoid the darkness because it leads to destruction and impugns God’s reputation. We should strive to be a source of God’s light wherever we are; the world is in shadows and lit by the harsh glare of artificial light; Jesus is the light of the noonday sun.