Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid, neither do men light a candle and put it under the bushel, but on the candlestick and it giveth light to all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father, which is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)
The Lord moves from salt in the last verse (Ye are the salt of the earth) to light, which St. John Chrysostom observes makes “a higher image.” Where salt was the more punitive agent, light is an inspiration, a promotional device gifted by God through Christ to His disciples.
“And ‘a light’ to the mind, far better than this sunbeam: like as they were also a spiritual salt,” writes St. John Chrysostom. “And before they are salt, and now light; to teach thee how great is the gain of these strict precepts, and the profit of that grave discipline: how it binds, and permits not to become dissolute; and causes clear sight, leading men on to virtue.”
Two things are happening here: One, Christ is demonstrating his ineffable prophetic power. After all — most of the persons to which He addressed these lines were unknowns and of lowly rank, but the world would come to know several of them on a first-names only basis. Light of the world, indeed! St. Chrysostom adds, “Where now are they who persevere in disbelieving the power of Christ? Let them hear these things, and let them adore His might, amazed at the power of the prophecy. For consider how great things he promised to them, who were not known even in their own country: that earth and sea should know them, and that they should by their fame reach to the limits of the inhabited world; or rather, not by their fame, but by the working of the good they wrought. For it was not fame that bearing them everywhere made them conspicuous, but also the actual demonstration by their works. Since, as though they had wings, more vehemently than the sunbeam did they overrun the whole earth, sowing the light of godliness.”
I cannot help but reflect on my old evangelical days, when I argued adamantly against “works salvation” — clearly ignoring the gleaming city on a hill metaphor brought forth by Christ in this sermon. It does not say, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your great faith and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” This explicitly calls for “works” to be apparent. This image most lucidly argues for the need for the Christian to perform works, just as Christ’s apostles and first disciples used works as a means of carrying God’s message salvation to the entire Mediterranean world. Let me, at this junction, refer to the Jacobean ideal: “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” (James 2:17)
Many Protestants talk about “saving faith” and there is a kernel of truth in that idea. But the bottom line is, we simply must radiate the light of Christ to be saved. We simply must! Or else, or our learning and alms and “right answers” in the religious vein are for naught in that we our lack of light will see others close to us perish. Jesus told the thief next to Him on the cross that He would indeed follow the Lord into paradise, and the thief was saved not on his faith, but on his most public of declarations of faith in the Lord.
That said, I would also like take a bit of a risk here and exhort my fellow Orthodox brethren not to hide their faith underneath the onion dome of church. It’s not enough to appear in church once a week, pray silently, put a check in the basket, and then, once home, to act as worldly and materialistically as ever before. (As for me, I would say, this is too true!) Our lives outside of church, around our families, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and strangers must radiate that Light. And if it doesn’t, we are darker than our surroundings. “How great is that darkness…”