February 5, 2023
Seeing the Light
Jesus uses these two metaphors in our Matthew passage today that have universal appeal and connection as imagery. Everyone gets their meaning. Light and salt play an integral part in humankind’s survival and advancement. For centuries some form of fire was the only source of light other than the sun and salt was the only way to preserve meat unless you lived in places with extreme cold. For thousands of years in human history that’s the way life was.
NPR radio did a little piece on light not long ago. They were referencing the work of Bill Nordhaus who is an economist at Yale. He became obsessed with figuring out how expensive light was thousands of years ago and how it changed over time. Looking at history and archeology findings he determined that around 4,000 years ago, other than a campfire, or holding a burning log the best you could do was a little oil lamp. Nordhaus determined it would take a day’s labor for the average person to buy enough light to illuminate a room, but even that wouldn’t last for very long. Maybe 10 minutes. Light was really expensive. This was a world where, when the sun went down, almost everyone lived in the dark. And let’s note that the average candle puts out 14 lumens of light -as opposed to the average 60-watt bulb which puts out 800 lumens. I don’t know if you’ve ever tired reading by candlelight or not, but it leaves a lot to be desired!
Not much changed for a long time. Cooking hearths were developed and refined so you could reasonably safely have a little heat and light in at least one room inside your home. Certainly, in the beginning they were smoky too. Candles were more efficiently produced over time, but still 14 lumens each. In Scotland they found a particular sea bird that had so much oil in its gullet that you could kill it dry it off and thread a wick down it’s throat and it would burn like a candle. –Not the most romantic candlelight, I’m sure. But still it was limited light.
It was almost 1800 before whale oil lamps came along with a more abundant source of oil and a longer lasting light. Then things really started to change in about 1850 when the fruits of science and industry began to pay off and a guy in Canada, by the name of Abraham Gesner came up with a way to make kerosene from coal. Kerosene, later distilled from oil, may have prevented the extinction of whales! –A kerosene lamp could burn for hours. It was brighter and cleaner burning to boot. It was a real jump ahead.
Of course, things took another leap in the late 1800’s when Edison and others started experimenting with generating electricity and developing the electric light bulb. -Think of that! In one century, we went from candles, to Kerosene lamps, to electricity. A tremendous jump in light accessibility. –I can’t help but wonder, is it just coincidence that that was the same century slavery was abolished?
Nordhaus calculated that 4,000 years ago, it took a day’s labor for the average person to buy enough light to dimly illuminate a room for ten minutes. In the 19th century with kerosene lamps, a day’s labor got you five hours of light in a room. –By the end of the 20th century –a day’s wage could earn you around 20,000 hours of light with a 60-watt bulb. –Think about that the next time you start to complain about your electric bill!
Something we casually take for granted in our world was a very precious commodity in Jesus’ day. They lived in a world that was mostly dark after sunset. Children’s “Night Lights” were nonexistent, and you got ready for bed as soon as the sun started going down.
When Jesus says, “You are the Light for the whole world” it was significant. It may be a simple statement, but it had a world of meaning. Light was precious. And so was salt of course. – Salt was important as a preservative and as a seasoning. Nobody worried about salt in their diet in those days! To “Be in the Dark” was something those in Jesus’ day knew something about! in more than a proverbial way. It was to be in an uncertain, precarious, and sometimes, perilous position. It was to be outside the inner circle or near the campfire.
I know most of us don’t always feel like The Light. But Jesus isn’t talking about how we feel at any given moment. He is talking about the true state of our being before God. And remember this is all a continuation in Matthew of Jesus’s blessing of the poor, the meek, the grieving, and the peacemakers we read last week. They are the ones he is saying are the Light and the Salt! Those folks who are at the margins. Those folks who have no power or status in the world. Those folks who depend on God, sometimes because there is nothing else they can depend on.
Jesus makes an affirmation about God’s care and blessing and then assures them that they have status and importance with God. Their lives matter. They matter, with God, and they matter in the world. For those whose lives often seem a grind, a struggle, Jesus offers consolation and assurance. They are as important as light is to life, as salt is to food.
That reality is also at the heart of communion. Here, in the bread and the cup Jesus affirms God’s unconditional love and embrace. Here Jesus makes clear God’s abundant grace poured out for you. In this bread and this cup, taken as the gift of God and as the spiritual presence of Jesus, you are assured forgiveness and love, hope and affirmation. I invite you to come and take of this sacrament of grace. God has deemed you worthy. The Light he sent into the world proclaims you too share in the light of God. You too are an expression of that light.