“You Are the Light of the World” + Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. D. Corbet Clark


Isaiah 58:1-12
Psalm 112:1-10
1 Corinthians 2:1-16
Matthew 5:13-20


“You are the light of the world.”

When people through the ages have tried to figure out exactly what Jesus was trying to do in his ministry, they’ve come up with a variety of ideas. Some think he was like a monastic leader, trying to start a new ascetic movement, to establish a pure community of believers. Others that he was a teacher of wisdom, even secret wisdom, as Paul suggests in today’s reading from 1 Corinthians. Others say, no, he was a new Moses, giving people a new law of follow. And others have seen him as a revolutionary, starting a movement to overthrow the established order and remake society.

Each of these may have some truth to them, but the idea that he was trying to start a revolution I find hard to believe. It’s true that he lived at a time when the Jews were being oppressed by Roman rule, and there was a lot of anxiety about politics, but in the gospel, every time that someone tries to get Jesus to say something provocative about the Romans, he deftly avoids doing that. It’s not that he’s not interested in what’s happening in his society, but his focus, if it’s revolutionary, is more on what I might call a “revolution of the heart,” that is, a process of transformation that begins with the individual.

This is along the lines of what Isaiah is saying in today’s Old Testament reading. Seven centuries earlier, the Kingdom of Israel was under the same kind of stress as the Jews in Jesus’ time, with invaders pressing against the people and complaints about failed political leadership. Isaiah’s words let us hear what people in his society were saying – that they are fasting and praying and offering sacrifice and doing what God expects them to do, and yet God isn’t protecting them and giving them justice. Isaiah rebukes them by saying that God doesn’t care about the fasts and the prayers. How can they cry out for justice when they don’t practice justice in their own lives? They treat even members of their own households with cruelty and don’t care about their workers, or those who are hungry and homeless. They need to practice justice and equity in their own lives first, before they can expect God to help them.

This seems very much in line with Jesus’ teaching, which is so often focused on where people’s hearts are, as opposed to their outward actions. His complaint about the Pharisees is that they follow the letter of the Law but not its spirit – they don’t seem to regard the dignity of other people. If we think about why Jesus was so appealing to people, we could point to his powerful healing or his charismatic preaching. But we must also pay attention to his ability to treat all persons as fully human. We think, for example, of his encounter with the woman at the well, detailed in John’s gospel, and how he treats her with respect and dignity, even though she’s on the fringes of the social order. It’s this capacity to engage individuals and call them to personal transformation that is so striking. It reminds me of Jeremiah’s call for God to write the new covenant in people’s hearts. The just society we all seek must start with our own transformation.

In Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House there’s a well-known character named Mrs. Jellyby. She is a social crusader, a fervent advocate for orphans in far-away places like Africa, and she spends her days writing letters to stir up support for their plight. Meanwhile, her own seven children are utterly neglected: they are all filthy, in tattered clothes, scrounging for food as best they can, because their mother is too busy for them. In this caricature we can see sexist assumptions about the proper role of mothers, but it also hits home because we can recognize the type who is very concerned about injustice in far-away places but doesn’t practice it in their own life.

Our society today is also beset by anxieties – about threats from outsiders as well as concerns about political leadership. People from all parts of the political spectrum are calling for justice and urging people to political action. I think political action is fine, but I think Jesus would urge us to start with ourselves, to think about how to practice justice in the context of our own households, our own workplaces.

In my job this year as high school principal, I have responsibility for 45 plus faculty and 300 plus students. I won’t say I “supervise” the faculty, because if you know teachers, they’re not easy to supervise, but I am responsible for them. I have ideas and a vision of what I would like to accomplish broadly at school, but I have learned that my first job is really to treat others with equity, to work on relationships with individuals, to practice care for others. I am imperfect at doing this, but if I don’t try to do this, everything else – all my grand ideas and big plans – is meaningless.

“You are the light of the world.”

As we seek justice for our society, Jesus calls us to enlighten our own hearts, to examine our relationships with those closest to us. Am I doing justice to my spouse, my children, my parents, my brothers and sisters? Am I treating my co-workers, or the people who work for me, with respect and equity? What about my brothers and sisters in the Christian community?

You’ve probably had the experience at some point in being in a large and completely dark space, and having someone light just a single candle. Suddenly the darkness is transformed – not that it’s completely light, but now you can see, even if only dimly. Just one candle can make a huge difference.

When I was first ordained as a priest, I worked as an assistant in a parish in Seattle that was fairly well-to-do and rather conservative, with a good number of retired military. This was in the late 70s, shortly after the end of the Vietnam War. One summer, when the rector was on vacation, I got a call from someone in the Diocese working on refugee resettlement to say they had a group of Cambodian refugees arriving and really need placements for them. Without asking anyone’s permission, I put it to the congregation one Sunday morning – could we take in a Cambodian family. People rose to the occasion, there was an outpouring of help, and we got that family settled and on their feet. Just one family.

“You are the light of the world.”

As individuals, as families, as a Christian community we can take on the work, candle by candle, of remaking the world in the image of justice and love. Let your light so shine in the world, that people may see it and glorify your Father in heaven.


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