It is entirely possible to get caught up in the metaphors and lose sight of the point of this passage. We can distract ourselves thinking up ways to describe how we are meant to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. But in this passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says something truly extraordinary.
He says, “You are the light of the world.” What makes that extraordinary is that elsewhere in the gospels, in the Gospel of John to be exact, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” In today’s reading, he gives that quality to you and to me, to all who hear it. That means that each of us is equipped to be as Jesus to those we encounter. What an astonishing gift! You are the light of the world. And yet we so often choose to walk around in the dark.
In the 1970s, author Richard Bach followed up his unexpected best-seller Jonathan Livingston Seagull with the novella Illusions: Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. In it, a man making a living taking people up in his small old-fashioned plane meets another man in the same line of work. The second man has a reputation for performing miracles, but in their time together he insists that there are no miracles, only the obstacles that we create for ourselves. Argue for your limitations, he says, and sure enough, they’re yours. Every miracle that Jesus performs begins with the most mundane of actions. He sees the person instead of turning his head away. He notices the cripple, the beggar, the scorned woman. And he hears what they have to say. In that connection is where miracles begin.
Over and over again in the gospels, we see Jesus do extraordinary things, miracles that are clearly beyond our abilities. Or are they? In the first century, only Jesus could make the blind see and the lame walk; only Jesus could bring the dead back to life. What would happen if any one of Jesus’ contemporaries was plunked down among you and me today? He would see miracles on every side.
Using the gifts that God has given each of us – curiosity, wonder, imagination, persistence, and most of all the knowledge that we are all connected, the desire to help others along the way – we perform miracles. Corneal implants and laser surgery restore sight to the blind. Complicated neuromuscular surgery and intensive physical therapy make the lame to walk. And cardiopulmonary resuscitation has been known to raise the dead. Miracles!
Nasreddin Hodja lived in Turkey in the thirteenth century. There are many tales about Nasreddin Hodja. In some he’s wise, in some he’s foolish, and in some—as in this tale—he’s a little of both.
One bitterly cold winter night, Nasreddin Hodja sipped hot, sweet coffee and gossiped with friends. The men spoke of the weather. “I could stay out on a night like this with nothing to keep me warm,” he boasted.
The men scoffed in disbelief.
“I’ll show you,” Hodja said. “If I can’t stay out all night without a fire or any protection, I’ll invite you to a feast at my house.” Who could refuse such an offer? Hodja’s friends went to their warm houses. They sat by their windows and sipped hot drinks as they watched Hodja wandering in the snow-covered marketplace, studying the cold stars.
At last it was morning. Teeth chattering, Hodja entered the coffee house just as his friends were sitting down for the first coffee of the day.
“Here I am,” he said. “I survived, just as I said.”
“How were you able to do it?” they asked.
“I fixed my eyes on a candle flame burning in a window a hundred yards away,” he said. “It kept me going all night.”
No matter what Hodja said, the men were not convinced. They insisted he must have warmed himself by the heat of the candle flame burning behind a closed window a hundred yards away.
He sighed and invited them to a feast at his house.
As the muezzin sang out the prayer call at sunset, Hodja’s friends left their shoes at his door and entered his house. Time passed. Hodja went back and forth to the kitchen, but the men detected no good smells. They were getting hungrier and hungrier.
“When do we eat?” one of them inquired.
“The food is being prepared,” Hodja answered on his way to the kitchen.
“Maybe we can help,” another one said, and they all followed him. A huge pot hung on a chain from the ceiling. Beneath it on the floor flickered a candle.
“Hodja,” Mehmet said, “it will take forever for the heat of that candle flame to cook our dinner.”
“It should boil soon,” Hodja said. “After all, if a candle burning behind a closed window a hundred yards away can keep me warm on a win
ter night, the flame of this candle just a few feet away can surely heat the pot.”
I believe that most of the time we argue for our own limitations without even knowing it. You and I are doubtful that anything we say or do can make a difference and so we don’t bother. But our words, our actions, and even our outlook as we move through the gift of each day has the potential to provide just what someone else needs, even as the sight of a candle – the reminder of warmth and the knowledge that he was not alone – provided what Hodja needed.
You are the light of the world, Jesus tells us. Say the kind word. Offer the smile. How much light we could provide if we were to actually see, notice, respond to, and hear those around us. What would happen if you and I were to choose to live as though everyone around us depended on the light that only you and I can bring? What would happen if we chose to live as though we really were – the light of the world?