Friday, October 21, 2005

Light and Darkness (Part One)

In looking up the Bible reference for Jesus’ teaching related to hiding “a light under a bushel," I discovered some variances on how this parable is presented in Matthew, Mark and Luke.

The nuances of the three presentations suggest something very remarkable about what I believe Jesus taught in this example. What’s more, the adjacent passages in all three gospels demonstrate the difference in emphasis that each of these disciples may have attached to this teaching.

As the first of a three part study, I first examine and discuss Matthew’s Gospel and the context within which the light under a bushel metaphor is presented.

Matthew’s Gospel

Matthew is the primary source for some of the most powerful and evocative rendering of the Christian Gospel in the New Testament. Jesus’s cautionary teaching about keeping our light under a bushel is sandwiched between the Beautitudes, in which God describes those who receive special favor in His heart and eyes, and the assertion that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Law of the Old Testament prophets, to whom God had promised to “write the Law upon their hearts.”
3 “ Blessed are the poor in spirit,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
For they shall be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
For they shall inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
For they shall be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
For they shall obtain mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
For they shall see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
For they shall be called sons of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. 12 Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Matthew’s gospel presents the Beautitudes immediately prior to the passages that present Jesus’s teaching on the light under a bushel. These aptly named verses beautifully capture those who are closest to God’s heart. God is especially attentive to the people and situations that this passage describes, the meek, the peacemakers, “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

God provides a special blessing for those who are persecuted for His sake, and promises such as these a greater reward in heaven.
Believers Are Salt and Light
13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. 16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.
In contrast, the opening of Matthew’s verses on the Light we are to be, speaks about believers as the “salt of the earth.” Commonly understood, this would be the natural occurrence of salt inland, far from the ocean, which in the days of Jesus would signify a rare and valuable find. It would be that special blessing by God, and a thing of need and value for the people of a community.

Salt was a preservative, and it often meant that people could preserve meat and fish longer than this sustenance would last without preservation. That could mean life or death for people who had to live hand to mouth in an ancient economy.

People in those days would spend great sums of money or trade dearly for salt, which would otherwise be acquired from a trader who had arranged transport from an ocean coastline or other salt deposit. Given that salt mines were widely known in history and legend as places of terrible toil, having a community of believers perceived as “salt,” would mean that their availability would preclude having others mine that same salt themselves.

In this way, by sharing the good news, Believers whose “salt” retains its flavor can spare those who hear and respond to their invitation the toil associated with mining their salt “the hard way.”

The worst thing that could happen is for believers to lose their purpose, and be “good for nothing,” like salt that loses its flavor. God has called out those followers who He entrusts with His good news, the Gospel of His Son Jesus. He makes them salt for those who need “preservation.”

Matthew’s account then moves into the reference that began my search, speaking of how believers are the Light of the World, “a city set on a hill that cannot be hidden.” This is the Biblical source of the “Shining City on a Hill” allusion most recently popularized by President Ronald Reagan.

The Founders and many admirers since frequently refer to America as the “shining city on the hill,” not least because of our widespread Christian faith, but also because of the particular way in which America has been chartered as the foremost exporter of liberty and freedom for more than 200 years.

As followers of Christ, God clearly charges us in the Gospel to share our faith and join Him in His purposes, with our family and friends and in our communities. In these places, our faith is to be like the lamp placed on a lampstand, “giving light to all who are in the house.” This is in the days of oil lamps and cooking fires, not candles, and certainly no kind of artificial lighting.

The image here is of the central communal lamp, by which the members of a household might gather for an evening meal, or share stories, or otherwise go about making a life extend beyond the natural limits of daylight. This is an intentional harkening to a time and place of closeness and connection, by which the believer is the light by which the connection is established.

Lastly in these middle verses, Matthew describes the urging of Jesus upon His followers, that they would so shine that those around them, their community, the people with whom they shared, could see their good works. In seeing, those who would see will glorify the God who is the Author and originator and inspiration for those works.

This is an important admonition, too, that our good works should be cause for witnesses to give the glory to God. If they give the glory to us, it may well be that we distract their attention and detract from what God intends: namely, that the light we shine be merely a reflection of the Light He brought into the world, for all mankind.
Christ Fulfills the Law
17 “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. 18 For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.
Matthew ends his account of Jesus’s teaching with Jesus cautioning His followers that He did not come to lead His followers to abandon their scripture or faith, as exemplified by the law of the Prophets. Jesus plainly declares that not until the end of time, “One jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law until all is fulfilled.” (In other words, not one bit will pass away.)

This last segment of Jesus’s teaching actually led to great dissension within the early church. Jewish believers thought Jesus meant that one had to be an observant Jew first, and obey all of the law, following “every jot and tittle.” Gentiles, urged on by Paul among others, asserted that the critical portion of Jesus’s pronouncement was “Until all is fulfilled,” and hold that Jesus’s death on the cross represents the fulfillment of all for the purposes of this teaching.

Still others would hold that the law is still intact in its entirety as God gave the law to Moses and the Prophets, but that that is the grace and mercy of faith in Jesus, that while we were still sinners, our faith allows us to stand as if we stand righteous in all fullness of the law. We are presented before God blameless, and counted as heirs with Christ.

Matthew is back where he always prefers to be, where Jesus fulfills the prophesies of Torah (Old Testament). But we as believers, function in the text, as we are to function in the world, as a bridge between God’s unwarranted favor and the fulfillment of the Law in the hearts of those who would seek Him. For it is only because a fellow believer brings the “good news” to us that any of us became believers in the faith.

In Part Two, I will likewise explore the context within which Light and Bushel imagery is presented in the Gospel of Mark.


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