When President Kennedy left the Massachusetts Senate for the White House in Washington, he advised his fellow senators, “We must always consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill – the eyes of all people are upon us.” It was appropriate for Mr. Kennedy to employ the metaphor of the city set upon a hill as he departed Boston since the phrase was three centuries before used by John Winthrop as he prepared to leave behind old England and embrace life in New England’s recently founded Boston. President Ronald Reagan perhaps more famously spoke of the city set on a hill in his farewell address to the nation in 1989. The out-going president mused, “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind, it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace…more prosperous, more secure and happier…” Mr. Reagan dutifully acknowledged that his metaphor had roots in a phrase from John Winthrop, “who wrote it to describe the America he imagined.”
In modern political and patriotic oratory, the city set upon a hill has projected optimistic overtones. The American city set upon a hill is proposed as a symbol of excellence, a beacon of hope, a pledge of fulfillment. Public speakers might recall the city set upon a hill in the same manner as they cite the words of Cape Cod’s Katherine Lee Bates in America the Beautiful: “…Thine alabaster cities gleam Undimmed by human tears!”
Governor Winthrop however did not propose his words written as he prepared to sail for the New World simply as hearty encouragement for his fellow travelers as later statesmen would employ them. His suggestion that New England would be regarded as a city on a hill was not intended as a boast but as a warning. In his book As A City On A Hill, Princeton professor Daniel T. Rogers notes that Governor Winthop’s actual text reads, “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world.” This Puritan father was just as keenly aware of humanity’s sinfulness as he was of America’s promise, so he anticipated life in New England with great caution and not only good cheer.
Governor Winthrop’s guarded attitude of the city on the hill is certainly closer to Jesus’ original metaphorical intention found in his celebrated Sermon on the Mount. Worshippers will hear these words as this coming Sunday’s Gospel is proclaimed: “A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.” Note carefully that Jesus includes this iconic mountain-top city along with his symbolic images of the salt gone flat and the basket-covered candle — two ominous images of failure. Salt that has “lost its tang,” as a 1960s Biblical translation styled it, is useless, worth only to be “tossed out and trampled underfoot.” Jesus’ words here are hardly optimistic; they are at best realistic, possibly even pessimistic. Jesus’ citation of the lamp that has been lit and then foolishly placed under a bushel basket is equally grim. A lighted lamp is intended to be placed “on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house.” To do otherwise is senseless and frustrating, perverting the whole notion of illumination and enlightenment. Jesus indeed sees challenging times ahead.
But this coming Sunday’s Scripture readings do not leave the worshipper bereft of all consolation. The prophet Isaiah with characteristic eloquence advises the believer on how the city set on a hill can best merit its lofty position and how the cook’s salt can best enhance a tasty meal and how the home-owner’s candle can best cheer up a darkened room. Isaiah’s words are very practical: “Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own.” Such acts will remove the basket and permit the candle to shine: “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn.” Isaiah continues, “If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday.” The psalmist for his part concurs, “The just man is a light in darkness to the upright.” These words anticipate Christ’s insistence that his disciples’ light must not be hidden but “must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” The authentic city upon a hill is never the site of gullible optimism and naïve expectations; rather it embodies a zesty faith, an enlightened hope and invigorating good works.
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