The light in the darkness and the light that dispels it

“Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.’

“But others asked, ‘How can a sinner perform such signs?’ So they were divided.” (John 9:16)

“For you have delivered me from death
    and my feet from stumbling,
that I may walk before God
    in the light of life.” (Psalm 56:13)

Some of the teaching applications that people come up with are so light and insubstantial as to be just about useless. A case in point would be a popular Christian teacher online and on the radio who, like many believers I’ve met, interprets the parable of the talents as, “God has given us talents and he wants us to use them for his glory.”

Well, you don’t say. And when I go to the laundromat, instead of using the change machines, can I just fold and keep folding dollar bills until they’re small enough to force into the COIN slot on the machines? (Wait. COIN?)

The psalmist—David or someone who wrote down what happened–recognized that his deliverance, as incredible as it was all by itself, was for a purpose: “that I may walk before God in the light of life.”

So how does the “don’t forget to use those talents” approach stack up against this psalm? Not very well.

“The one who had received the five talents [i.e., for the sake of this example, we’re interpreting talents as “special aptitudes, abilities or skills,” the isn’t-it-obvious? meaning] came up and brought five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you entrusted five talents to me. See, I have earned five more talents’” (Mt 25:20). Master, when I started out, I had five talents. But now I know how to tie flies, make the perfect pie crust, whittle Christmas tree ornaments out of a bar of soap, clog-dance and create a PowerPoint presentation..

“Well done, good and faithful servant! And here’s a gift card for Applebee’s.” No. (OK, OK, I’ll stop.)

“Your word is a lamp to my feet/And a light to my path” (Ps 119:105) is a companion to the end of Psalm 56. The light for “my feet” and “my path” means walking a certain way, in obedience to God.

Light isn’t just knowledge or insight or astute analysis and observation of something in the light of his word. It’s wisdom to live by, not light to soak up (Can you do my back, ’cause I can’t reach all the way around?) or feel warm by. It’s “the light of life.

Jesus declared, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6). He also said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12). There’s that phrase again, “light of life.”

Who wouldn’t want the “light of life”? With twenty centuries’ hindsight, that’s an easy question to answer. They tried to extinguish the light by crucifying him, just as surely as Joseph’s brothers tried to extinguish the light in his two dreams by extinguishing him—first by dumping him in a pit, then selling him into slavery. That’ll knock the chip off his shoulder once and for all.

Light reveals things. The Greek word for revelation (apokalypsis) has the sense of “uncovering,” like lifting the sheets draped over furniture in an unused room to reveal what’s underneath. It was always there, but now we can see it. Or see it again. The “good news” of the gospel message is twenty centuries old. But it’s “news” every time it’s revealed to a “darkened heart” (Rom 1:21) that’s brought into the light.

So how do you account for the variety of responses to “the light of the gospel”? Or “the Light” himself, Jesus Christ? There’s a wide range.

He was marveled at. “’Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?’ they asked. ‘Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?’” (Mt 13:54-55).

Some tried to flatter him, so he would let his guard down and then be tricked into making a mistake in interpreting the law. “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” (Mk 12:14-15).

But Jesus, himself “the Light,” saw through this. “But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. ‘Why are you trying to trap me?’ he asked” (v. 15). 

Bad move. Jesus gave them this answer, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mk 12:17). The religious leaders started out ready to spring a trap; after this answer “they were amazed” as well.

And obviously he was hated, even far in advance of his death at the hands of the religious leaders at the cross. When Jesus healed the man with a shriveled hand on the Sabbath, “then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus” (Mk 3:6).

But there’s an interesting progression in this story that reveals more about “the light.” Jesus surely knew while the Pharisees were watching that healing a man on the Sabbath was a provocative act. He didn’t shrink from it, didn’t try to hide anything or think twice about maybe waiting a day.

“Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, ’Stand up in front of everyone,’” then asked those present who were looking to accuse him (more provocation), “’Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’” (more light, kingdom light, the light “of life”).

There is nothing passive about this, like a lone candle burning on a nightstand. This is the light going after the darkness because the darkness is concealing, obstructing or smothering life.

Like this: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Mt 23:13).

At this stage of Jesus’ ministry, when it’s all woes for the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, there are no Sermons on the Mount: The Sequel or colloquies with experts in the law who, despite their initial intention to test him, might still be reasoned with (e.g., the story of the good Samaritan, Lk 10:25-37). The division is clear and irreversible.

Which presents another problem. If it has always been the Lord’s intention to bring together his wayward people—Jew and Gentile, slave or free, woman and man, young and old, rich and poor—into one Body, baptized by one Spirit, then how do we deal with these apparently contradictory impulses?

How do you say, like Paul, “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit”(Eph 4:3) when Jesus declared, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division” (Lk 12:51). Some people aren’t perplexed about this at all, but the reason for their confidence is unfounded. More in the next post. 

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