February 12, 2017

 ‘Light of the World’

BIBLE READINGS

 

Isaiah 58:1-12
Matthew 5:13-20

REFLECTION

Living in Australia, I think we know more than other 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. Tourists are attracted to come to Australia after they see photos of our blue skies against white sands.

But, sun can also mean drought, sunburn, skin cancer, and, of course, bushfire. There was a warning yesterday that a quarter of the land mass in Australia, especially in NSW, SA, Queensland, and NT, would experience temperatures above 45C. Almost half the country would have temperature above 40C.[1] So, it’s understandable if, especially in the hot summer weather, nothing like what we have now in Perth, many feel that we have too much sun that less sun is preferable.

Even at night, living in the suburbs of a sprawling metropolitan city like Perth, we are surrounded by artificial lights. No wonder many people choose to escape to the outback to enjoy ‘darkness’; to witness the night sky undisturbed by our excessive artificial lights.

Jesus, however, addressed 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. 

So, when Jesus talked about light and salt, he talked about items that were essential in his time. Light and salt were the ‘must-haves’ of every household at the time.

Light was essential because without it people would be simply left in complete darkness. Light gave protection in darkness against robbers or wild animals. Salt was used not only for cooking, but also for preserving food (there was no such thing as a refrigerator back then). At the time, the Romans even used salt to pay their workers. The word salary comes from the word salarium that means salt in Latin.[2]

So, the message about being light and salt was not a message that Jesus’ followers could or should ignore. Jesus was not giving an advice or suggestion. He was giving a new commandment. It was a requirement for those who followed him. The world would be left in the dark and could not survive without the salt and the light of the world.

A couple of years ago, the grass in my backyard didn’t grow as well as I hoped it would. There were some dead patches that were covered by moss. So, I tried everything that I knew to get the grass growing again. I got rid off the moss. I watered the area. I sprinkled the area with fertiliser. Yet, nothing changed.

One day, a couple, who were avid gardeners, came to the manse and they knew immediately why, regardless of my efforts, the grass didn’t grow. “There isn’t enough sunlight,” they said. Apparently, the branches from the tree nearby blocked the sun from reaching that particular part of the garden. So, I cut some branches off the tree, to let more light in. Within a few weeks, the grass had finally grown and started covering the barren patches.

Friends, just like the grass in my backyard needed sunlight to grow, without the light of the world, the world would also wither and die.

No, Jesus didn’t expect anything less from his followers. Those who dared to follow him must go beyond what the Pharisees and the Scribes had done.

The Pharisees and the Scribes were the guardians of the religious tradition at the time. The Pharisees, especially, tried to keep their tradition by adhering strictly to the Jewish religious law. They followed the law, word by word. By doing that, however, they had often missed the law’s true intention.

Jesus, on the other hand, gave fresh perspective into understanding the law. He followed the ‘spirit’ of the law rather than following it word-by-word. Following the ‘spirit’ of the law, however, is more difficult than following the law word-by-word. For example, to love others as we love ourselves, is more difficult than to follow the literal instruction 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 ‘spirit’ of the law itself, which is to live a life full of compassion and generosity; to uphold justice and righteousness; to be like God who is compassionate, generous, just, and righteous.

In our reading from Isaiah, the prophet reminds us that our light will only shine when we show our compassion and solidarity to those in need. The people of Israel at the time had often failed to live up to God's expectation. Their blind adherence to their religious ritual did not have any real impact on their day-to-day living.

So, the prophet reminded them that God prefers right living than ritual obedience. Our light will shine not when we only observe our religious ritual - whether it’s praying or fasting or tithing or attending church or reading the Bible - but when we also live the kind of life that God wants us to live; when we devote our life to help those who are marginalised; when we give our life to free those under oppression; when we show generosity towards those who need help.

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. I’m not saying that these things are not important. They are very important for our spiritual life, but they mean nothing if they do not result in our living according to the pattern that Jesus showed in his life; if they don’t result in our solidarity with and generosity towards those who are marginalised and oppressed in our society.

So, 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 biblical teachings that we read. Going to the church is not enough if, after we leave, we treat other people with contempt and not with the respect and love they deserve.

Friends, remember: we don’t light a lamp and hide it under a basket. 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.

Amen.

[1] Sam Buckingham-Jones, Blown Away by Roaring 40s, Nations Seeks Relief, on the Weekend Australian (February 11, 2017)

[2] See Exegesis, preaching suggestions, and illustrations based on Matthew 5:13-16 by John R. Brokhoff excerpted from Preaching the Parables, Cycle A (SermonStudio)