In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of a city on a mountain or hill not being able to be hidden. Perhaps we might think of a city high up on a mountain. When I went to Galilee to the spot where Jesus spoke these works, I found that he might be referring to something different. A city set on a hill might be something more like the city of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. It is literally “set on a hill” by being built into the hillside. You can see each successive terrace of the city as it climbs higher and higher. Indeed such a city cannot be hidden, especially at night.
Today we look at the city of Tiberias at night and think how beautiful it is. Yet, when Jesus spoke about such a city, his apostles would have though also about how dangerous it is. In the ancient world you constantly had to worry about your city being attacked. For protection you could make high walls or, better yet, completely hide the city underground. A city that could be hidden was a safe city, a “city that cannot be hidden” as Jesus spoke of was a dangerous city.
Despite the dangers, Jesus clearly wants his disciples and his Church today to take the riskier path of being a city exposed for all to see. We are to let our light shine. The readings today tell us that the best way to do this is not just with words, as St. Paul cautions, but with our actions. We know that if we stand for moral principles, bear witness to the truth, live our faith in public, then we will be exposed and vulnerable to attack like a city on a hillside. Yet this is what we are called to do.
When we know this we shouldn’t be surprised that we get singled out for special scrutiny or that the devil seems to be constantly putting up obstacles. If you’re under attack, it means you are doing real damage to Satan’s kingdom, it means you have a city that is worth attacking. Good for you! It won’t be easy, but it’s worth the risk. In the end, there are two options. We can build our city on a hillside with all the opportunity and danger that go together or we can try to hide underground where it will be safer. Which city do you want your life to be?