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The Lamp and the Bushel


"Is a lamp brought in to be put under a bushel, or under a bed, and not on a stand?" (Mark 4:21)

"No one after lighting a lamp covers it with a vessel, or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a stand, that those who enter may see the light." (Luke 8:16)

"No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar or under a bushel, but on a stand, that those who enter may see the light." (Luke 11:33)


"You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and let it give light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 5:14-16)

Here is one of the many cases of Jesus teaching by means of a joke. He sets up a situation that is palpably, laughably absurd. He invites his hearers to imagine a poor dope stupid enough to light a lamp and then not know what to do with it! Get a load of this guy! He's sitting there reading his paper in the evening, and right in the middle of a juicy story, wouldn't you know it?, the light bulb fizzles. So he gets up and looks in the cupboard, then in the basement, then in the garage, but there aren't any fresh bulbs in the house! So he groans, hops into the car and drives over to the convenience store and searches through the boxes till he finds the right voltage. He stands in line while everybody and his brother take forever buying lottery tickets and whatnot. Finally he pays for the bulb and heads back home, the evening half consumed. He gets the lampshade off, then unscrews the old bulb, screws in the new one, manages to get the shade on straight again, clicks the light on, kicks the shoes off his aching feet and is on the point of sinking back into the easy chair--when one more thing occurs to him: oh, yeah! So he runs into the kitchen, grabs a burlap bag and pulls it over the top of the lamp! Shrouded in darkness again, he settles in. Huh? What a stupid jerk, right?

The audience laughs. Yeah, what a nitwit! Nobody would be that stupid, maybe one of the Three Stooges! Heh heh; now he has them. "Yeah? Well if it's so damn stupid, why the hell do you do pretty much the same thing?!"

Caught up short, they stop laughing pretty quickly and ask, "What do you mean? How are we doing that?" And Jesus proceeds to point out some less obvious but equally silly tendency in the moral or religious life. If he strikes home, the crowd is likely to laugh with chagrin. Touché. "Yeah, come to think of it, I guess we do!"

The technique is that of the court jester. He says critical things to his king, things no one else would dare say for fear of getting a haircut starting at the throat. But the jester speaks his words into a strange zone where they will reverberate with laughter. The king can get away with laughing off the criticism, but he may be an even bigger fool than the jester if he disregards what the jester has said. And the jester can get away with it, since the king will look pretty bad is he has him hauled off to the dungeon, since it will get around that he can't take a joke, that the jester must have hit a nerve. But if the jibe stings and the royal lion starts to growl, the jester can always say "Just kidding!" And if the king stays mad, he will be the one insisting that the quip be taken seriously, so he will probably take the opportunity offered to laugh it off.      

The use of humor to prod and chide is much more likely to win your audience over, to make them see the irony the humorist had caught them in. But since he's got you to laugh at yourself, to see the essentially comical character of human life, you may take the lesson to heart, not too mad either at the jester or at yourself.

The reason satire doesn't work quite the same way is that the joker is inviting/inciting the audience to laugh at the behavior not of themselves, but of a third party. Perhaps the satirist lampoons those in authority and thus punctures their pretensions, makes it easier for those they rule to laugh at them and to have contempt for them. It is much easier to keep control over those who revere you than over those who resent you. And satire demystifies. Satire will make the target angry, and this makes them less likely to change for the better. So why does the satirist not take the "laugh at yourself approach" with them? Presumably he has already, but they were not amused. That having failed, the jester-prophet turns to others and tries to interest them in forcing the change on the rulers who are unwilling to make it.

But what is the light, the oil lamp, that is being smothered under a bushel basket when, as any fool can see, it belongs on a lampstand so people entering the house will see their way and not stumble into things? What is it Jesus' hearers are doing that is tantamount to such idiocy? Today we tend to interpret the saying very broadly. In common use, it means that if you have a talent you owe it to others to develop it so they can benefit from it. We take it, in other words, as a parallel to another saying of Jesus: "Much will be required from the one to whom much has been given." If you have some music or artistic ability, some scientific genius, that stands to benefit many others, you owe it to them to cultivate it. Talent to perform or to serve, by its very nature, is for others. Like love, it cannot rightly be kept to oneself. You must give your life on behalf of many. Whether Jesus had this in mind or not hardly matters. It is a good way of applying the saying.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew has already broadened the saying out beyond what may have been a more narrow original scope. For Matthew, the light you must let shine is your righteousness, your good deeds. Presumably, you have ignited the lamp by becoming a pious, spiritual person. But you have an obligation not to keep this to yourself. If you do, how will anyone profit by your good example? You should encourage others to emulate your good deeds. They will at the very least thank God for people like you, and their consciences will prod them to pass on a bit of the goodness you showed them. Never mind the fact that Matthew has told us elsewhere in the Sermon that exactly this, doing our acts of righteousness before others, for public consumption, is what we are to avoid like the plague! There he tells you that Jesus said we are to keep our piety as much a secret as we possibly can, praying not in public but in a closet if that's the only place we can escape observation! In a closet is pretty much the same as under a bushel, wouldn't you think? Maybe this is not what Jesus meant after all.      

The Second Isaiah had commissioned his fellow Jews, returning from foreign exile, to serve as "a light to the nations," to live in their restored homeland as a model community. The nations would surely see how their God had restored them to the Holy Land, how the covenant between God and his people was unbreakable, and how a holy people would prosper. Thus Jerusalem, the city set on a hill, would be like a lighthouse beckoning to the nations, showing them a better way, a way out of the thick darkness of degrading idolatry. It is not hard to imagine Jesus aiming the lamp and the bushel saying at his fellow Galilean Jews who, living amid Gentiles, had long ago assimilated to Greek culture and lifestyle, inviting the catcall "Sinners!" from the pious Jews of Judea and Jerusalem to the south, who used to upbraid them as "Galilee that hatest the Torah." Galilean Jews should be upholding basic Jewish distinctives as a good witness to the heathens surrounding them. When, all across the Roman world, faithful Jews did practice the Torah, they made Judaism very attractive to Gentiles, many of whom actually converted or at least attended synagogue as "Godfearers."  So it could work.

Jesus, himself a Galilean Jew, had decided to live among the "sinners" like Demian among the lepers, since it was the sick who needed the physician, not the healthy down in Judea. The light he summoned them to expose for the good of others, then, might have been the Jewish way of life, the scriptural way of life. As the Letter to the Romans puts it, "You call yourself a Jew and rely upon the law and boast of your relationship to God..., confident that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness... While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?... You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? For it is written, 'You have made the name of God a laughingstock among the Gentiles'" (2:17-24) Here a Jew chides fellow Jews, worldly Jews, who have betrayed their mission and with it those their mission would have enlightened. Imagining themselves a light to the Gentiles, they have instead hidden their light under a bushel.

In just the same way, I imagine that when Jesus said, "The rulers of the nations lord it over them, but it shall not be so among you. Let the greatest among you be servant of all," he was referring to Jewish leaders in Palestine, perhaps the Herodian rulers or even the Sanhedrin, not bishops or deacons of a new Christian religion which did not yet exist.

Another possible identification of the light that should be allowed to shine is the scripture ("Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path" Psalm 119:105). The temptation to smother it under a basket might be the familiar tendency of religious people to stop at merely hearing the commandments of scripture, not pressing on to keep them. "Put the commandment into practice; don't just listen to it read, because then you're just kidding yourselves. Look, anyone who hears the commandment and leaves it at that is like the poor fool who looks in the mirror before he leaves the house, to check the face he was born with. He sees himself all right, but no sooner does he turn away than he completely forgets what he saw and goes out looking as much a mess as he was before! He is no better off for having glanced at the mirror, but someone who gazes deep into the clear, revealing glass of the Law that sets us free and doesn't forget what he saw there, but instead follows through and does something about it, such a one will benefit from looking in the mirror" (James 1:22-25, my paraphrase).

This passage from the Letter of James could easily be taken for another of Jesus' ironic comparisons: "Who would be stupid enough to behave this way? You, that's who! You know enough not to do it literally, but you do it spiritually all the time! How come you can't see that just as easily? Well, now you do. So shape up!" The metaphors are pretty close: in one case the Law is compared to a lamp to prevent you from loosing your footing. In the other the Law is like a mirror to show you what is wrong so you can correct it in time. In the first scenario you perversely stash the lamp under a basket, and in the second, you do see what the mirror reveals, but you can't remember long enough to fix the problem it revealed. Equally absurd! Equally self-defeating. Both efforts equally wasted.

As Freud would tell us, those who act in such peculiar ways are not really aware of what they are doing. Consciously they realize they need to see something about themselves, about their lives. But something prevents them from seeing what should be evident (and no doubt is evident to others). What is that something? It is that which, like the fictional vampire, shuns both the light and the mirror lest it be exposed and destroyed. Perhaps Jesus was urging his contemporaries to live up to the high religious calling that was their birthright and their obligation not only to their ancestors and their God, but to those who needed the light they could provide. Perhaps he was suggesting they, as individuals, stop kidding themselves about a piety that was too superficial, a band-aid covering a gangrenous wound. In either case, his technique was to get his hearers to laugh at themselves and the absurdity of their situation. He knew people can't manage to get too angry while you're tickling them. 




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