light bulbs suspended from a ceiling

Come on, light!


Epiphany 5A2023
Matthew 5:13-20

We are probably all aware that the Bible was not written, originally, in English. What language was the Old Testament originally written in? (a little portion in Aramaic too) What about the New Testament? (koine Greek, as opposed to classical Greek or modern Greek) If you’ve studied a different language (how many of you have studied a different language?), you know that language is not just different vocabulary. That is, we do not simply insert one Greek word or one Spanish word or one German word for one English word. For example, I just began studying Spanish a few months ago using an app, but it doesn’t explain grammar to me. So, I asked a friend whose first language is Spanish what “por favor” literally means. He said, it means “please.” I was like: I know it means “please,” but what does it literally mean? There are two words there. What do they literally mean? And he was like: It means “please.” And I was like: I don’t think you understand me. What does “por” mean, and what does “favor” mean? Like, favor? And he said: It’s an idiom, and it doesn’t mean anything in English but “please.” Oh, okay. It’s an idiom like, in English, “give it a whirl” or “fish out of water” or many, many other non-literal expressions. Every language is its own universe with its own assumptions and concepts that may or may not be shared by other languages. Another example: In college, I studied Latin and learned, to my surprise, that Latin includes neither the definite article nor the indefinite article. Meaning, Latin does not use the words: a, an, or the. At all. When we translate Latin into English, we are required in places by the English language to insert the definite or indefinite article even though it’s not there in the Latin.

In today’s gospel, we encounter a familiar teaching of Jesus but one with unfamiliar grammatical constructions that make a big difference in how we understand it. Jesus says: You are the light of the world. So, let your light shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to God. At first glance, Jesus’ words sound like a command, right? And to you, in particular. At each baptism, as we hand a lit candle to either the baptized person or their sponsor, we say these words: Let your light shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to God. You, the baptized one, are tasked with shining light. But a close look at the Greek reveals something different.

First, while the English language doesn’t distinguish between singular “you” and the plural “y’all,” Greek does. And when Jesus says: You are the light of the world and Let your light shine, he is saying: all y’all. Y’all together are the light of the world. Let your collective light shine. It’s not the individual’s light that is to shine but the community’s light. The light belongs not to the individual but to the community. Here, the Greek presumes collective identity, not individualism.

Second, when Jesus says: you are the light of the world, Jesus is descriptive, not prescriptive or in grammatical terms, indicative, not imperative. Later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus will share plenty of imperatives, prescriptions, commands. But notice here that Jesus says we ARE the light of the world, not that we’re TRYING to be the light of the world or we BETTER be the light of the world. We ARE the light of the world; that’s just who we are—together.

Third, the one imperative in this gospel reads: Let your light shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to God. It’s an imperative but an imperative that doesn’t appear in English, a third-person imperative. When we command someone to do something, it appears in the second person: YOU do this thing. YOU wait here. YOU do your homework. But here in the gospel, the imperative is third-person. She/he/it is commanded to do something, and in this verse, it’s referring to the light. Jesus commands the light to shine brightly, not us, not humans. Because, of course, the light that we are is not in our control but given to us by God. At most, our effort as humans is to simply allow what is essential to us, given by God, granted to us at creation, to shine more brightly.

Does this make sense? We, collectively, are the light of the world, at our core, and come on light within us and among us, shine brightly!

Now, Jesus isn’t foolin’. In a world where despair might overcome hope and where apathy might threaten the most vulnerable among us, we may ask: Are you sure, Jesus? We may tell ourselves that the world is a place of nothing but hopeless and fear and injustice. But today, we also celebrate the ministries of Esperanza, 34 years of sharing in Christian community. The light of the world has shined from this community to raise children in faith and life, to serve our neighbors, to walk together in sorrow and joy. We can’t stop this light from shining because we ARE the light of the world. And today, with Jesus, we command: Come on, light, shine even more brightly among us! Thanks be to God! Amen.