MOST OF THE LORD JESUS’ public life was spent among farmers, fishermen, shepherds and tradespeople. Little wonder, then, that the imagery in His parables is drawn from their experience. The image in today’s reading would have been familiar to all. Everyone was dependent on lamps to dispel the darkness.
In the first century – and for many centuries before and after – a household lamp was bowl-shaped and generally made of pottery. It had an opening in the center into which oil would be poured and another at one end for a wick. It was generally small enough to fit in the palm of one’s hand. It might be placed on a shelf or on a lampstand in the center of a table. A larger room might have full-sized lampstands spaced around the room. The lampstand was generally shaped like a candlestick, except that the top was shaped like a flat saucer on which the lamp would be placed, instead of a candleholder. The higher the lampstand, the wider would be the circle of light.
The Lord reminds His hearers that, ““No one, when he has lit a lamp, covers it with a vessel or puts it under a bed, but sets it on a lampstand, that those who enter may see the light” (Luke 8:16). The illustration is obvious, but what is the meaning which the Lord attaches to it?
The imagery of light runs through the Gospels. The Lord uses the image to describe John the Baptist: “He was the burning and shining lamp, and you were willing for a time to rejoice in his light” (John 5:35). John was a lamp in that he shone light on the salvation that was coming in Christ: “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
Often, as in Jn 1:9 and throughout that Gospel, the light is Christ Himself, “the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world.” The Lord Jesus described Himself in this way: “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (John 8:12).
In our liturgy light is frequently depicted as representing Christ. Perhaps the earliest example is the hymn sung at vespers every evening. It glorifies Christ as the “Radiant light of the holy glory of the immortal Father.” It was recorded in the late third- century Apostolic Constitutions, meaning that it was already in use by then.
The Lamp in Luke’s Gospel
The images of the lamp and lampstand are used in Luke to designate something else: the message announced by John the Baptist and proclaimed by Christ – that the Kingdom of God was at hand. God was going to act in a decisive way and the only possible response by His people had to be repentance. Christ’s preaching was the placing of the lamp on the lampstand. His word was to shed light on the house of Israel.
This is made clearer by what precedes and what follows the parable of the lamp in this chapter. The first fifteen verses of Luke 8 recount the parable of the sower. In it “The seed is the word of God” (v. 11) which is received in different ways by those who hear it. Some hear, but “the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved.” Others receive the word with joy, but “in time of temptation fall away.”
Others hear the word but “are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life.” Their fruit does not ripen. “But the ones that fell on the good ground are those who, having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience.”
By sowing the seed of the word the Lord Jesus was placing the lamp on the lampstand so that the whole house – the people of Israel – would be illumined.
What follows the parable of the lamp is the unsettling vignette in which Christ’s family comes to see Him. His response seems to dismiss them: “My mother and My brothers are these who hear the word of God and do it” (v. 21). In fact, He is exalting those who respond to His message: those who accept the message that the Kingdom of God is at hand and who repent and follow Christ are His family.
What Has Been Hidden?
The next verse in the parable of the lamp is somewhat cryptic: “For nothing is secret that will not be revealed, nor anything hidden that will not be known and come to light” (v.17). What is hidden that the Lord Jesus’ teaching is to reveal?
For many Jews the “Kingdom of God” was to be an independent Israel, a restoration of the kingdom of David and Solomon. That was not God’s plan. The “Kingdom of God” was to be that all creation be renewed in Christ.
St Paul decades later would pick up on elements from the parables of the lamp and the sower in Luke to explain God’s purposes. He would speak of “what was hidden” as “the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ… according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ephesians 3:9-11).
Paul’s whole ministry was built on his conviction that the Kingdom was open to Gentiles as well as Jews. Thus he would write to the Colossians that the Gospel “…has come to you, as it has also in all the world, and is bringing forth fruit” in that the Father “… has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:6, 12-14).
The light of Christ enlightens all mankind.
“Here is that great and hidden mystery. Here is that blessed end for whose sake all things were created. This is the divine purpose foreknown before the beginning of creation… This is the mystery spanning all the ages, revealing the supremely infinite and infinitely inconceivable plan of God.”
“The mystery of the incarnation of the Logos is the key to all the arcane symbolism and typology in the Scriptures, and in addition gives us knowledge of created things, both visible and intelligible.”