You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. [Matthew 5:14-16]
Just one verse after Jesus compares us, as believers, to something that forms deep below the surface of the earth (salt), yet emerges from that darkness as something both valuable and flavorful, He now is taking us to “higher ground.” Isn’t that just like our Lord? A limitless God who understands the earthly limitations we constantly must contend with. And, of course, He also has full knowledge of both extremes, height and depth, since He created every inch of it, from to the toppest top, down to the bottomest bottom.
Hills were used for all kinds of things over the centuries. Armies preferred to build their forts on higher ground. It allowed them to more quickly see if an enemy was approaching. I’m sure you have heard the term, “uphill battle.” So, obviously, you did not want to be the army charging up a hill to engage your enemy. You would much rather be the ones charging down the hill from a fortified location. We would only have to look back in our own history, to World War II and the Normandy Invasion (or “D-Day” as we call it), to fully appreciate the disadvantage that lack of elevation causes on the battlefield. The Allied forces, over 150,000 strong that day, were said to be like “sitting ducks” as they had the unenviable task of fighting their way up from the water’s edge on the beaches of France, to overtake the German fortifications on the surrounding hillsides. Our troops eventually gained control of those areas, taking that part of France back from the Nazis, mostly due to the sheer number of the invading allied forces. But, many thousands were lost in the battle along the way.
“Higher Ground” is not just desirable for waging war, or just the name of a classic Stevie Wonder song. It is also the best place to build a lighthouse. With regards to the horizon, a lighthouse situated on higher ground would be seen from much farther away by approaching ships than one which was built closer to sea level. That is also why some lighthouses are taller than others, of course. The taller the better, unless you were the one who had to walk up those steps everyday. There were no elevators back when many of those older lighthouses were built.
There has always been another interesting perception, when it comes to the height of certain things like a lighthouse or a city, or the lack thereof. It had to do with the term “city on a hill” being thought of as a virtuous city or one that had flourished to the point of being admired in some ways. A person of “high morals” is generally preferred over someone of low moral standards and I think it is from this perspective that Jesus shared His thoughts about a “city set on a hill” and how it is not easily hidden.
When we are given a position of prominence or authority, whether in the political realm, the church or even in a workplace or family, once you achieve an elevated status in one way or another, the spotlight (or cameras nowadays) is always on you. Things you may have been able to get away with before, are now out in the open and fair game, as they say. It goes with the territory, so be careful what you wish for, if you are intent on climbing that social ladder.
Higher status means higher visibility, and that also comes with the need for more accountability. Jesus certainly understood that. An interesting dynamic, here, is that on one hand this man who claimed to be the Messiah, or from God, seemed to be suggesting that the religious hierarchy the Jews used to gain power and influence for themselves had run it’s course. Now that God had sent His Son to be the mediator between God and man, as it says later in 1 Timothy 2:5, there was no longer a need for a high priest. Jesus, now, is the only high priest we will ever need, much to the dismay of Caiaphas and the others who were greatly troubled by the radical claims He was making. So, you might think He would say that being a “higher up” was not always a good thing.
But on the other hand, our Lord seemed to be encouraging those who were gathered on that hillside that they should desire to be someone that others look up to, people of virtue and people who shine the love of God on those around them. He implies, here, that God does not shine His love on us or bless us, just for ourselves, but that we might also be beacons of light and love to others, as a lighthouse on a hill. We should not keep it hidden or to ourselves. It is like the words of that classic Reba McEntire song, “Love Isn’t Love (‘til you give it away).” So simple yet, so profound.
That’s the Master Storyteller at work, is it not?
As I step back from this parable and take another look at it, this time from the frame of reference of the “big picture”, I am quickened by another peculiar part of this little story:
Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. [Matthew 5:16]
If I am reading this right, it sounds like He is instructing us to feel free to let our own light shine before people in such a way that they may see how good we are. That doesn’t sound right. It is not like Him, in my mind, to encourage us to “put on a show” for others in such a way as to make ourselves look good. That is what the Jewish and Roman bigwigs did all the time and Jesus did not seemed all that fond of their behavior. Is this a change of thinking, here, or am I missing something?
Let’s keep reading, so we don’t jump to conclusions, here. The last part of this parable ties it up quite nicely and even puts a bow on it, “and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” So in the end, Jesus brings it right back around to where He started. The goal is to bring God glory, not ourselves.
But, He kind of does it in a roundabout way, does He not? He starts by telling us “You are the light of the world.” Wait. Jesus is the light of the world, not us. But, here He is saying we are, too. And then, at the end of this masterful story, He says we should let our light be seen by men that they may see our good works. All of this had to have many in the audience wondering where He was headed with these somewhat radical statements.
Well, like the name of Part Two implies, there were plenty of “mounting questions” concerning this Jesus of Nazareth. And for a lot of folks, this sermon on this hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee did not fully answer them. In fact, for some, it only raised more questions, I would think.
But it does point to another important aspect of this Master Storyteller. His stories, His parables, they were meant to draw those who were His, closer to Him. While at the same time, they were designed to repel those whom He knew would never come. And once again, as the Son of God, He knew these stories would not only be heard by those who were present and heard His words with their own ears. He also knew that they would be spread by “word of mouth” to many others and that they would even eventually be written down for generations to come to learn from, as well.
Oh what a Savior.
Oh, what a Master Storyteller.
Oh, what a loving God we serve.