There are clear instances of this, and we find a particularly meaningful example in the Parable of the Lamp (often called the Parable of the Candle and the Bushel) found in all three Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke. These three Gospels each record this same parable, but Matthew’s account, for example, shows a different setting to that of Mark and Luke. In each case the parable is varied somewhat, and the lesson being given appears to have a different stress.
Essentially the parable discusses a lamp placed in one of three settings: on a lamp stand, under a bed, or under a jar or bowl. But we should notice how the three accounts differ and the lessons they convey.
The Lamp on a Stand – the Lesson in Matthew:
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house” (Matthew 5:14-15).
Matthew’s account does not include the “bed” mentioned in Mark and Luke because its stress is on the lamp being placed on a stand so all can see its light. We see this stress in the extra words – unique to Matthew’s Gospel – which compare the lamp on a stand to a city on a hill (vs. 14). The lesson in this telling of the parable is made clear: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (vs. 16). Matthew addresses those whose light shines like a lamp on a stand.
The Lamp under a Bed – the Lesson in Mark:
Mark’s account introduces another way the light can be treated: “…Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand?” (Mark 4: 21). The “bed” (Greek klinē – a small couch or bed) Christ mentions was a piece of furniture high enough to allow a small oil lamp to be placed beneath it, but low enough to limit the amount of light that would be visible.
This telling of the parable seems to focus on the aspect of limited illumination – symbolic of a person who gives out a limited amount of the light at his or her disposal. This limited light may help those close to the person, but that is all because the light is being held back. Perhaps we see this in the warning found in Mark’s account: “Consider carefully what you hear … With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more” (Mark 4:24).
Mark’s version of the parable speaks especially to those who limit their light: those who choose to be “low key” Christians in ways such as only sharing their light with others of the Faith – those “near” to them.
The Lamp under a Jar – the Lesson in Luke:
Luke’s version of this parable may have yet another stress: “No one after lighting a lamp covers it with a jar …” (Luke 8:16 ESV). While some translations have “basket,” the Greek word skeuos indicates a ceramic jar, bowl or other container used to hold flour – not an open weave basket. The meaning is important because placing an oil lamp under such a solid container not only stops all light from escaping, but also cuts off the air, causing the light to eventually go out.
This last fact makes Jesus’ words spoken at the end of the parable particularly significant: “Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they think they have will be taken from them” (Luke 8:18). Luke’s version of the parable seems to speak to those who receive the light, but whose religion is “personal” and they do not share the light they have with others “so that those who come in [from the outside] can see the light” (vs. 16, parenthetical comment added).
Three Tellings – Three Lessons
So Jesus’ Parable of the Lamp is recorded for us in three versions, each with a different stress. While the parable seems to have been used on separate occasions, it is clear from the details recorded in each instance that Jesus was stressing different lessons. The parable speaking of putting a lamp on a stand, under a bed, or under a closed container stresses three ways in which we might deal with the light we are given: sharing it widely, sharing it in a very limited way, or not sharing it at all. The ultimate question posed by the parable, of course, is what kind of lamp are we?
*To learn more about the parables, download the free eBook The City on a Hill: Lessons from the Parables of Jesus from our sister site, here.