This passage from Sunday’s Gospel is part of Jesus’ well known “Sermon on the Mount.” Jesus is calling his disciples to stand up and be counted, to put themselves out there and be known. It may sound like he is calling them to be attention seekers and to strive for fame. The problem is that being known as a follower of Jesus during his life time and in the first 300 years of the church meant martyrdom. Who wants that kind of fame? He was truly asking them to risk their own lives so that the truth of the Gospel and the promise of eternal life might be known, especially to those whose lives were without hope. Let your light shine, not for your own glory but for the glory of God and the salvation of others.
Isn't that call to “fame” so different from the drive for fame that exists in our time? For the last two decades “reality television” created a new breed of celebrity, people who became famous not for any talent or achievement, but rather because of media and self-promotion. The fame gained through reality television has been enhanced and even surpassed by the technology of social media. Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Vine and other similar venues have enabled the average person to have millions of “followers.” I recently read an article which reported on conventions which bring online celebrities to local venues where they can meet and greet the thousands of fans that show up.
While this modern day pursuit of celebrity may be perceived as innocent fun, it is also quite dangerous. Most of the most famous online celebrities are young people in their teens. We know that teenage life straddles the line of wanting attention and desiring privacy. We know the painful history of childhood celebrities, creating more young celebrities only creates unhealthy scrutiny of these young lives. It also makes them vulnerable to predatory behavior. Surely, not all of the millions of followers, that online celebrities enjoy, are simply adoring teenage crushes.
While not everyone becomes famous online, similar dangers exist for all who expose their lives to social media. Children are using this technology more and more and they access it not through the easily monitored home computer, but through the electronic devices they carry about with them. With this kind of access to the world, they are vulnerable to online bullying. In the past, a young person may have had to deal with a playground antagonist now there is no escaping that adversary. In the past, mean notes were slipped into a locker or backpack, now those hurtful attacks are public for the viewing of all. Rumors which were once dependent on the passing of whispers are now easily forwarded to hundreds and thousands of others. Curious adolescent chatter has moved beyond the sanctity of the locker room and now exists permanently in cyberspace.
Social media has its benefits but without the intense supervision of caring adults, this new era of fame is dangerous and destructive for our children. Jesus calls us to let our light shine, to not be afraid to be public witnesses of the Gospel. We are called to be such witness even in social media. We all share in the responsibility of keeping our children safe; helping them to avoid unhealthy self-promotion and teaching them that even they have the ability and responsibility to let the light of their faith shine.