I went back in time this past Christmas.
Once again I was a child sitting on the floor working my way through a lego instruction manual building a castle. Only this time the castle wasn’t black, it was light gray and blue. Instead of the bad guys being knights, they were now a dragon, a wizard, and his army. This time my oldest son did most of the work building it, to the disappointment of his dad. He didn’t need me to help except for some tricky knot tying when it came to installing the portcullis to keep the wizard and his dragon army outside the castle, away from the gold and princess.
I was struck by an odd thought as I was playing knights and dragons with my boys.
Maybe the words Jesus didn’t say, the images and metaphors he didn’t select are as important as the ones he did.
I know it sounds odd, right? But, hang with me for a moment as I explain what I mean.
Jesus was a master storyteller when it came to using everyday images known to all in his teachings. Amongst the many images, illustrations, and parables Jesus uses in the Sermon on the Mount he compares those who would follow him to being like a city on a hill (Matt. 5:14). No doubt those listening would of immediately thought of Jerusalem, the city of David, built upon a hill.
The choice of a city becomes more interesting when we think about the other images Jesus would have been familiar with in his day and could have used. For example, how different would this passage sound if Jesus would have told his listeners, “a fortress built on a hill cannot be hid.” Fortresses were well known in Jesus’ day. Places like Herodium and the more famous Masada where the Jews made their last stand during the Jewish War. Both of them built upon a hill. Both of them would have easily fit within Jesus’ analogy.
Like the lego castle my son built, fortresses are great for protection and keeping unwanted guests out. Fortresses get built as a response to fear. Out of fear of the enemy. Or a desire to strike fear into the enemy.
Cities in contrast are built for the exact opposite. They are meant to attract people. Yes, cities have walls for protection. But, cities thrive on people coming into them with their goods and produce to buy, trade, and sell. Cities invite people to come into them and be their guests and residents, to share ideas.
Jesus’ choice of a city on a hill stands out when we begin to compare it with other options-like a fortress-he could have picked from. And yet, when I begin to ponder the differences between a city and a fortress, I can’t help but think sometimes we, the church, have changed Jesus’ imagery. We are caught up in following the lego instruction manual for how to build fortresses and castles brick-by-brick, instead of building cities.
We are building fortresses when fear is the main motivator for the crafting of our visions and budgets. Fortresses are being build when we begin to see neighbors and strangers in our communities as us versus them. People who may speak different from us, who might believe different from us. We begin to withdraw inward thinking the world is a cold dark place we must keep outside the walls.
We build cities when we do not let fear be our motivation for ministry. When we begin to think about how we can make space for others-who might be different from us in a lot of ways. We are building cities upon a hill when we begin to ask questions which are about more than how do we survive the loss of the millennials or our relevancy in society. When we ask how is God moving ahead of us and calling out to us to follow?
This is when we begin to shine like a city upon a hill.
Fortresses. Cities. Sometimes it helps us understand better the images and words Jesus selected and used in his teachings when we look at the other images which dotted the landscape of Judea during his life. Comparing and contrasting them allows us to see what stands out in the references Jesus’ selected and what’s important. So we might shine brightly upon a hill one brick at a time.