Think about who Jesus is talking to when he says, “You are (already) the light of the world.” Is he talking to the bishops of the United Methodist Church? Or to a group of young people going off to serve in the Peace Corps? Or to the US. Senate as they vote their conscience (or what’s left of it). No. He is talking to Galilean peasants. To fishermen, disabled persons, barren women, prostitutes, etc. A slice of the lower half of society. Gathered on a hillside without a roof, praise band, or Power Point slide show. They, you, and I, are already the light of the world.
Light was the beginning of God’s creation. God said the word and made light. Called it good. In the fifth chapter of Matthew, Jesus calls us good. That is the over-all theme of his sermon on the mount. People sit and hear God say, “I already love you. I already think of you as the light of my creation. I already trust you.”
Having said this, Jesus then wants to go on and talk about ethics. About the better way the people of light should live. He doesn’t take away the good compliment he has already given us. Instead he extends his teaching to show how light should be in this world.
Look at the use of the word ‘light,’ both in Jesus’ teaching (Matthew 5:14-16) and in Isaiah’s (58:6-8). Manifesting the ‘light’ of God’s love and grace by our love for others is the way our righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees. This means taking responsibility for the things those around us need. If they are hungry feed them. If they are sick or in prison, visit them. If they are being denied their basic rights and dignity because of race, gender, or sexual orientation, then stand with them in their cause. If poverty has them trapped, then help them find the pathway out of their distress. The prophets of the Old Testament, as well as the great voices of other world religions, knew how to be ‘Light’:
Loose the bonds of injustice.
Undo the thongs of the yoke and let the oppressed go free.
Break the things that bind people to poverty.
Share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house.
When you see the naked, cover them.
Have the kind of conscience
that prevents you from hiding from your responsibility for all people.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn.
(from Isaiah 58:6-8)