Telling people that they make a difference just by breathing could be seen as a bit presumptuous but that was the long and short of it when the crowds followed Jesus up a mountain all those centuries ago.
The young Rabbi was brilliant at leaving memorable pictures in his audience’s mind and that day he chose something that has echoed throughout the rest of human history.
You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.
Re-reading his words in what is now called the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew’s Gospel in the New Testament of The Bible) it’s easy to forget how shocking it would have been for his listeners. The Jews were under occupation by Rome. At every turn columns of soldiers trooped past; taxation was heavy and oppression was evident in all sorts of ways.
It was a very dark time but here Jesus tells a hillside stuffed with the poor, the young and powerless women: ‘You are the light of the world’ … go on and change things.
It reminded me of being back in my home, the Eastern Valley of South Wales, and going on what is now a tourist’s visit to the Big Pit mining museum at Blaenafon (left). You put on a miner’s helmet, step into the cage and drop 90 metres down the shaft into the depths. Then, when everyone is ready to begin walking towards the pit face, the lights are turned off leaving everyone in absolute darkness.
Today, when it is impossible to escape from some form of light, the experience of being totally without it is astonishing.
How many people live lives of slow, crumbling darkness? Broken and unable to see any prospect of light at the end of their tunnel?
In Jesus’ day most households relied on the feeble, fragile light from small oil lamps barely 8cm across (right) and just able to throw some light about three feet. But when darkness fell it was this that enabled people to work, read and write.
And Jesus said: ‘You are the light of the world.’
He didn’t say that we might be if we try hard enough … or that some of us may be chosen one day … or that the richest or prettiest or tallest might be allowed to …
He looked at a hillside full of people – anyone who had chosen to turn up that day – and said: ‘You are …’. No opt-out clauses and no qualifying exams. As Snow Patrol put it in their magnificent track Run: ‘Light up, light up, as if you have a choice.’