I Misused a Metaphor

As a college student, I preached a sermon from Matthew 5:14-16. But looking back, I now realize that I misused a metaphor! To help you be a better Bible student, I’ll show you what I mean. I’ll let you learn from my mistake.

What is a Metaphor?

First, what is a metaphor? It is a figure of speech in which one word or thing is given to represent something else, even though the things compared are not related. An example is Isaiah 40:6, “All flesh is grass.” Then consider what the Lord said about Israel, “My people have been lost sheep” (Jer. 50:6). In the New Testament, Jesus called his followers salt: “You are the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13).

A metaphor is a figure of speech in which one word or thing is given to represent something else.

The reader understands that flesh is not grass, Israelites are not sheep and disciples of Jesus are not salt. These metaphors, or direct comparisons, are given to make the reader think about the way in which flesh is like grass, Israelites are like sheep and disciples are like salt.

The “Light” Metaphor

Jesus does a similar thing in Matthew 5:14. He says that his disciples are light, as in “the light of the world.” Thankfully he tells us what he means by this in Matthew 5:16. We are supposed to live in such a way that the spiritually darkened world around us sees our Christian conduct and glorifies God as a result. To illustrate this point, he uses two metaphors: a city on a hill (Mt. 5:14) and a candle in a house (Mt. 5:15).

Lights in a hilltop city illumine the thick nighttime darkness of the countryside below. And an oil lamp in a house illumines the room(s) within for the residents who live there. In a similar way, followers of Jesus are to bear the light of Jesus Christ to the sin-darkened world around us.

So, What About that Bushel Basket?

But what about that bushel basket? In Matthew 5:15, Jesus says that no one lights an oil lamp, then covers it with a bushel basket. When I explained this detail in college, I waxed eloquent about the bushel basket. First, I described what it was: a household container, like a bowl or a basket, with the capacity to hold 2 gallons of dry contents. Then I explained how people used these baskets to measure, store and carry dry goods for cooking, shopping and trade. In the end, I concluded that we should never allow the daily activities of life – such as household chores, business or commerce – to overshadow our responsibility to be a witness for Jesus. This all sounds good. But it misses the point that Jesus made.

Missing the Point

Jesus did not intend for us to delve into the “deeper meaning” of the bushel basket any more than he intended for us to delve into the “deeper meaning” of a hilltop city. (Besides, most cities were on hilltops or “tells” in those days.) He only mentioned the basket in passing to make his bigger point. What was the bigger point?

He tells us plainly. “Don’t hide your light” (Mt. 5:14). “Don’t cover your light” (Mt. 5:15). “Let your light so shine” (Mt. 5:16). First, he makes his point by talking about how an illuminated city shines in the night, something that everyone would understand. Next, he makes his point by describing the very laughable scenario in which a person lights a lamp and covers it up, something nobody would do. Then he states his point clearly. Live out your Christianity in public.

See the point that Jesus is making and stick to it.

So what about the bushel basket? Don’t let it distract you. Don’t look for deeper meaning there. Step back and look at Matthew 5:14-16 altogether. See the point that Jesus is making and stick to it. Using the bushel basket as a springboard to somehow figure out the kind of things that can “cover” our light is nothing more than a rabbit trail to nowhere. The real point is not what covers your light, but is rather the sheer senselessness of covering your light at all.

The real point is not what covers your light, but is rather the sheer senselessness of covering your light at all.

In regular life, no one turns on a light to cover it. So how can we be followers of Jesus who carry his light to the world, but then cover it instead? If covering a lamp with a bushel basket is laughable, then hiding your witness for Jesus is utterly ludicrous. That’s the simple, crucial point that Jesus is making. Don’t let the bushel basket get in the way of hearing this clearly.

 

 

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