5th Sunday after Epiphany (February 9 • 2014)

‘Light of the World’




Isaiah 58:1-12

Matthew 5:13-20 



Australians know more than most people in the world about light; I mean, of course, about sunlight. For us, living in a desert continent like Australia, sunlight is both a blessing and a curse. When we think about the sun, we immediately think about drought, sunburn, skin cancer, and, of course, bushfire. I was riding my bike along Safety Bay Road last Sunday when I saw a thick smoke billowing on the horizon. There must have been some kind of fire, most likely a bushfire, near Kwinana.

Therefore, it’s understandable if, especially in the hot summer weather like now, many of us may feel that we have too much light that less light is perhaps preferable. 

Even at night, living in the suburbs of a metropolitan city like Perth, artificial lights surround us. No wonder many people choose to escape to the outback to be able to enjoy ‘darkness’ and witness the beauty of the night sky without being hindered by our excessive artificial lights.

Jesus, however, addressed a people in ancient time where light, especially artificial light, was not as abundant and excessive as it is today. The thing that we take for granted in modern life; the thing that many of us would like to have less off, was an item that people in Jesus’ time couldn’t live without.  People were very appreciative of anything that could bring light into darkness, especially at nighttime.

Therefore, when Jesus talked about salt and lamp, he talked about items that were essential in his time. They were the ‘equivalent’ of today’s computer or car. Salt and lamp were the ‘must-have’ items in every household at the time. Salt was used not only for cooking, but also for other things like preserving food (there was no such thing as refrigerator back then). At the time, the Romans some times used salt to pay their workers. Even the word, salary, comes from the word, salarium, in Latin that means salt. A person who was not worthy of his salt was not worthy to receive his wages.[1] Lamp, on the other hand, was also essential because without it people would be simply left in complete darkness in houses at night.

Therefore, to be the salt and light of the world was not something that Jesus’ followers could ignore. The world would simply be left in the dark and could not survive without his followers being the salt and the light of the world. The teaching about being the salt and light of the world was thus not an advice or suggestion. It was a new commandment from Jesus. It was a requirement for those who followed him. We may fail along the way, but that should not be an excuse for us to stop trying to be the salt and light of the world.

In winter last year, the grass in my backyard didn’t grow as well as I hoped it would. There were some patches in my garden that were covered by moss and not by grass. I tried everything in my knowledge to get the grass growing in those areas again. I got rid off the moss. I watered the areas. I sprinkled them with fertiliser. Yet nothing changed until, one day, a couple who were avid gardeners came to the manse and told me the reason why the grass wasn’t growing well, regardless of my effort: there wasn’t enough sunlight. The branches from the trees nearby blocked the sunlight from reaching some areas in the garden. So I cut some branches from the trees, to let more sunlight in and, only within a few weeks, there were already some improvements. The grass grew quicker and it started to cover some of the barren patches.

Just like the grass in my backyard needs sunlight to grow, without us living our life as the light of the word, the world would also wither and die.

Therefore, Jesus didn’t expect anything less from his followers concerning the ethics, laws, and commandment of the Old Testament. On the contrary, he expected more. Those who dared to follow him must go beyond what the Pharisees and the Scribes had done. Their life must be better than the life of these two groups of people.

The Pharisees and the Scribes were the guardians of the Jewish tradition at the time. The Pharisees, more specifically, preserved their tradition by adhering strictly to the words of the Jewish law. By following the law, word-by-word, however, the Pharisees had often missed its true intention. Jesus, on the other hand, gave fresh perspective into the words of the law. He captured the ‘spirit’ of the law and asked his followers to follow it.

Following the ‘spirit’ of the law, however, was far more difficult than following the law word-by-word. For example, to actually follow the commandment: love others as you love yourself, is far more difficult than to follow every words of the law, because what is required is a change of life; a change of heart, and not simply a change of one’s habit or behaviour to suit the words of the law. This was the trap that the Pharisees and the Scribes had often got caught in. By adhering to the words of the law, they often missed the very ‘spirit’ of the law itself, which is to live a life full of compassion and generosity; to uphold justice and righteousness; in other words, to be like God who was compassionate, generous, just, and righteous.

Therefore, God, through the mouth of the prophet in our reading from Isaiah, declares that our light will only shine when we show our compassion to and solidarity with those in need. The people of Israel in the time of the Old Testament, however, had often failed to live up to God's expectation. Their blind adherence to their religious ritual did not have any real impacts to their day-to-day living.

Jesus’ followers thus must obey the law that God had made for the people of Israel. This law, however, was not the endless rules and obligations that the Jewish religious leader in Jesus’ time often gave to burden the people with. This law, in light of our passage in Isaiah, was not the law of rituals. This law was the covenant, the contract the God had made with the people of Israel to live a life of compassion and love.

God reminded the people of Israel that God preferred right living than ritual obedience. Our light will shine not when we only observe our religious ritual, but when we also live the kind of life that God wants us to live; when we devote our life to be with those who are marginalised; when we give our life to free those under any kind of oppressions; when we show generosity towards those who need it the most.

No, the world will not see our light if the only thing that we do is praying or fasting or going to church on Sunday or reading the Bible regularly. I’m not saying that these things are not important. They are very important for our spiritual maturity, but they are useless if they do not result in our living according to the pattern that God has set in Jesus; if they don’t result in our solidarity with and generosity towards those who are marginalised and oppressed in our world. 

At the time of our prophet in our Isaiah reading today, many people in Israel thought that they would find favour in God’s eyes simply by observing the rituals; by fasting and offering sacrifices in the temple regularly, but without paying attention to their social obligations towards the weak in the land. Therefore, God declared that their observance of their rituals had been rendered useless because, once they left the temple or left the ‘sanctuary’ of their rituals, they did not follow God’s covenant to live their life the way God wanted them to.

Therefore, praying is not enough if we do not seek or do what we ask from God. Reading the Bible is not enough if we do not shape our life according to the teachings that we receive in the Bible. Going to the church is not enough if, after we leave the church, we treat other people with evil intention and not with the respect and love they deserve.

Friends, remember: we don’t light a lamp and hide it under a basket. By the same token, we must not hide our light by keeping it in our house or in the church. We must bring our light to the people outside of our familiar places; outside of our comfort zone, to those dark places where our life will give the desperately needed light to the souls who live there.



(Together in Song 607)

Make me a channel of your peace.

Where there is hatred let me bring your love;

where there is injury, your pardon, Lord;

and where there’s doubt, true faith in you.

            O Master, grant that I may never seek

            so much to be consoled as to console,

            to be understood as to understand,

   to be loved, as to love with all my soul.


Make me a channel of your peace.

Where there's despair in life, let me bring hope;

where there is darkness, let me bring your light;

and where there’s sadness, ever joy.

            O Master, grant that I may never seek

            so much to be consoled as to console,

            to be understood as to understand,

   to be loved, as to love with all my soul.


Make me a channel of your peace.

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

in giving of ourselves that we receive,

and in dying that we're born to eternal life.


 [1] Exegesis, preaching suggestions, and illustrations based on Matthew 5:13-16 by John R. Brokhoff (excerpted from Preaching the Parables, Cycle A) (http://www.sermonsuite.com)