Lamplight vs Starlight

05/02/04 and 12/19/10 (cndllght)



Matthew 5:13-16

13 Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.

14 Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.

15 Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.

16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.



A classic Peanuts cartoon showed Peppermint Patty talking to Charlie Brown. She said, “Guess what, Chuck? The first day of school and I got sent to the principal’s office. It was your fault, Chuck.” Charlie Brown responds, “My fault? How could it be my fault? Why do you say everything is my fault?” To which she declares, “You’re my friend, aren’t you, Chuck? You should have been a better influence on me.” Now, I know that Peppermint Patty was trying to pass the buck. She was trying to blame Charlie Brown for her own bad acts, but in a way, she was right. We do influence people around us, and as Christians, we should be a good influence.

People know this, and, rightly or wrongly, they hold us to a higher standard. A minister was making a wooden trellis to support a climbing vine. As he was pounding away, he noticed that a little boy was watching him. The youngster said not a word, so the preacher kept on working, thinking the lad would leave, but he did not. Pleased at the thought that his work was being admired, the pastor finally said, “Are you trying to pick up some pointers on gardening?” “No,” replied the boy, “I’m waiting to hear what a preacher says when he hits his thumb with a hammer.”

People are watching us. Jesus says that when they watch us, they should see something good. He calls us to be lamps to the world. Unfortunately, most of us would rather be stars. We want to be the center of attention. We want to dazzle. We want to be above the common crowd.

Jesus encountered the "star syndrome" among his own disciples. In Matthew 20:20ff, the sons of Zebedee and their equally ambitious mother petition Jesus, begging him to "save them seats" in heaven. James and John do not want just any seat. They ask Jesus for the VIP seats, those immediately at his right and left hands. James and John are looking for stellar status, a place where they may shine down on others.

Jesus tries to teach these two star-seekers that their request is wrong- headed. He reminds James and John that the way they may emulate him and be "first" in the kingdom is through serving others. In other words, Jesus says, Do not be stars, be lamps. Do not try to out shine other people. Try to help other people.

Matthew 5:13-16 is about helping others. Jesus says that his disciples are salt and light.


Among the ancient Romans, it was sometimes the custom to pay soldiers in salt. This is where the phrase “not worth his salt” comes from However, salt must be scattered to be effective. Salt needs to be sprinkled around. As a metaphor of discipleship, "salt" suggests that Jesus' followers are also to be out and scattered about. To be "salt" is not a static identity; it is our mission into the world. Notice that Jesus does not say that you are like salt, or that you are like light. He says, “You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.” This is who we are; this is why we live in this world.

But then Jesus says in the second part of Matthew 5:13, “But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.” During the time of Jesus, most salt in Palestine came from the Dead Sea and contained many impurities. Sometimes the salt was so contaminated with foreign substances, that it was good for nothing and had to be thrown out.

The application to us is all too pertinent. We are called to live pure lives and to be devoted to Christ, but we allow ourselves to be contaminated by the world. We allow our discipleship to be so polluted by other things, other causes, other factors, that we become useless for the real work of Christ. In effect, we are good for nothing Christians.

The question then becomes, How do we act as salt? How can we be salty disciples?

First of all, salt gives taste. I like food. I like eating. But I have occasionally tasted some meat or vegetable dishes that had no salt in them. Yuck. Half the taste is missing. Now salt by itself does not taste very good but in food, salt unleashes the flavor. As Christians, we are God’s seasoning in the world. Just as salt adds zest and fires up the taste buds, so too we should be making life more “tasty” for others. Christians should be making the world a better place.

Then, salt is a preservative. You may know that refrigerators did not become widespread in the US until the 1930's. I remember talking to my grandfather about how they preserved food when he was a child. They used smoke houses to smoke meat, and they sugar cured it and salt cured it. Probably salt curing was used most of all. There is an old joke from the British navy, this is from back in the days of sailing ships, the joke was that you could have two choices for meat at every meal in the british navy. You could have salt pork or salt beef. I imagine that got old very quickly.

In any case, used in this way, as a preservative, salt does not make something good; it keeps it from going bad. Even so, we are a preservative in our culture. Many things in Western culture are good. We should always work to preserve the good. For example, western ideas of freedom, of the rights of the individual, of the value of human life—these are great ideas that Christians ought to preserve.

Thirdly, salt creates thirst. You have heard the old saying “You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink.” Actually, you can. If you put salt in his mouth, he will drink. There is an urban legend that some restaurant buffets serve salty food, so that customers will drink more water and eat less. I do not know if that is true, but it certainly is true that salt makes you drink. Christian salt should make people thirsty for Jesus. Colossians 4:6: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” Christians are to be gentle and respectful so that people will look upon us and desire Christ. That is our saltiness. Unfortunately, some Christians lose their saltiness, and try to save the world with pepper spray—which never works.

Salt is a seasoning, a preservative, a thirst producer. In all three cases, salt must be brought into contact with its object in order for its power to be released. Salt that just sits in the shaker does no good for anyone. It might just as well be thrown out. If we are serious about obeying the command of Christ then we need to penetrate lives with the message of the gospel. Salt is not just sprinkled on meat to preserve it. It must be blended into the food. As God’s people, we need to be with people. Above all, we need to be with those who need us.


Secondly, Jesus says, "You are the light." While salt must be scattered about to enhance its effectiveness, the light of discipleship must be gathered together into a "city built on a hill" in order to light the way. Within the communal, cooperative life of a city, the small flame of each disciple is magnified to create a powerful beacon in the night. Just as a city on a hill "cannot be hid," neither can the brilliance of the light produced by a community of true disciples. The church of Jesus Christ is the hilltop nightlight for the world.

However, the corporate light of this image in no way suggests that our individual lights are unimportant. Verse 15 continues this "light" image by focusing on the illuminating quality in each lamp. Jesus says no one would be so idiotic as to light a lamp and then put it under a basket. We can imagine his audience nodding in agreement. The proper place for a lamp, as everyone knows, is on a lamp stand, where it can throw its light in all possible directions.

We all know that, but make the application to Christians. Our lives should be like lamps on lampstands. When we live out our faith in the midst of our family, friends, and neighbors, our lives can guide people to the right path. Our lives can help them see where they ought to go, and what obstacles they ought to avoid.

There is a story about an old farmer who was hassling his hired hand for carrying a lantern when he went to call on his girlfriend. “When I went a-courtin’ I never carried one of them things,” said the farmer. “I always went in the dark.” To which the young man replied, “Yeah, and look what you got!” Perhaps we should not explore that story any further.

But certainly, our job as Christians is to show the way. John Ruskin lived in the days when English villages were lighted by lamps along the street. One evening, he watched with a friend as a lamplighter moved slowly on a distant hill, lighting the lamps along the street. Ruskin said, "There is what I mean by being a real Christian. You can trace his course by the lights that he leaves burning." Jesus said that people should be able to trace your life by the lights you leave burning.

Verse 16 focuses further on light as the mark of a true disciple. This "light" is now defined more specifically as "your good works," which should "shine before others." Notice that we are not to do good works in order to gain some sort of fame or reputation. In the next chapter, Jesus said, "Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward” (Matthew 6:2). Their reward was praise from people. They got that. They got nothing from God. Our purpose in doing good works is to glorify God out of gratitude and love.

What Jesus is saying is that the only star is God. The rest of us are called to be lamps. Lamp-Christians are about helping others. Hebrews 10:24 defines the glowing value of being a lamp-Christian, saying: “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.” Today we often hear about the need for role models and mentors. Jesus says you should be that. I should be that.

Now we might think of a mentor as someone who is in an elevated, "upfront" position, but, in fact, genuine mentors are not "stars." The role of the Christian mentor is a lamp, helping light the path of others. The role of a Christian mentor is to offer guidance and service in mostly ordinary ways.

Moreover, remember this: Any lamp, however small, can throw some light and be of some help. Do not say, “Poor little me, I am so ordinary, I cannot do anything for God.” Take confidence in the potential power of your lamp, because the source for your lamp is the source of all light. In Luke 6:40, Jesus reminds his disciples that while “a disciple is not above his teacher … everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.” As disciples of Christ, "lights of the world," we are in the process of being “fully trained” to be like our teacher. Our training consists of letting our lamps shine, that others may see and find the way, the truth and the life.

Robert Noel Test (1926-1994), during his lunch break, wrote a great essay entitled "To Remember Me." It has been widely reprinted. Let me conclude then with his essay.

At a certain moment, a doctor will determine that my brain has ceased to function and that, for all intents and purposes, my life has stopped. When that happens, do not attempt to instill artificial life into my body by the use of a machine, and do not call this my "deathbed." Call it my "bed of life," and let my body be taken from it to help others lead fuller lives.

Give my sight to someone who has never seen a sunrise, a baby's face or love in the eyes of another.

Give my heart to a person whose own heart has caused nothing but endless days of pain.

Give my blood to the teenager who has been pulled from the wreckage of his car, so that he might live to see his grandchildren play.

Give my kidneys to one who depends on a machine to exist from week to week.

Take my bones; muscles, fibers, and nerves so that someday a speechless boy will shout at the crack of a bat and a deaf girl will hear the sound of rain against her windows.

Burn what is left of me and scatter the ashes to the winds to help the flowers grow.

If you must bury something, let it be my faults, my weaknesses, and all my prejudice against my fellow human beings.

Give my sins to the Devil. Give my soul to God. If, by chance, you wish to remember me, do it with a kind deed or word to someone who needs you. If you do all I have asked, I will live forever.



If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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Last Modified: 05/02/13