Light to the whole world

In this week’s Gospel, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.” It might be difficult for us to capture the astounding nature of this saying because of our own cultural relationship to light. In a time when many of us produce light in abundance by simply flipping a wall or a lamp switch, we take the production of light for granted. If, however, we put ourselves in Jesus’ historical context, the only true light of the world was the sun. Any other light came from a candle or a small oil lamp. Consequently, Jesus’ description of his disciples as “the light of the world” takes on a deep spiritual meaning.

In Jesus’ time, any light produced by humans hardly pierced the darkness; so it was cherished as a gift to penetrate the gloom of night. People did not hide the lamp under a bushel basket, but “set [it] on a lampstand where it gives light to all in the house.” There was only one small light, no light for separate rooms, for various appliances.

It is easy to get ecstatic about the wonder of a small light, but Jesus tells his disciples that they are the light of the world. They are more like the sun than the small light in the darkened house. Jesus wants his disciples to share the light they have been given. “Just so your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” In other words, we become the light of the world when our good deeds make life a little bit easier for someone who needs help. If a person is sad, perhaps a smile brings light into their life. If a person is sick, a short visit becomes a ray of sunshine for that person. If a person feels abandoned, letting her know there is someone who cares brings the presence of God into that abandonment.

This week’s Gospel reading follows very shortly after Jesus gives his disciples the Beatitudes. When he calls them the light of the world he obviously thinks of those disciples who live their lives according to those Beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” “Blessed are the meek.” “Blessed are the pure of heart.” If one wants to know how to become the light of the world, one need look no further than those Beatitudes.

When Jesus calls his disciples the light of the world he seems to be reminding them of this week’s lesson from Isaiah. Isaiah is certainly known to the listeners of his Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes it contains. Share your bread with the hungry. Shelter the oppressed and the homeless. Clothe the naked. “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn.” A disciple of Jesus wants to bring light to the whole world. Just as the small lamp brings light to the whole house, so the disciples’ lives bring light to the whole world.

Fr. Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, Oshkosh, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.