Oh Eye See! Solving the mystery of Matthew 6:22-23

The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”
Matthew 6:22-23, ESV

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I sometimes think Matthew 6 is my spiritual medicine cabinet. I struggle with being well-thought of by others and with the danger of religiously going through the motions. I need Jesus to teach me how to approach prayer. I live in a society where materialism is one of the greatest temptations and despite my efforts I never fully feel I’ve conquered the temptation to accumulate things here. And despite acknowledging God’s sovereignty, I worry a lot about the future.

Jesus addresses some of my major life-issues in His best known sermon. But have you ever read this chapter and struggled to figure out how the verses above fit into the overall picture?

The above verses from Matthew 6 are one part of the Sermon on the Mount that seems to spoil the flow of what Jesus is saying. In 6:19-21 Jesus talks about having the right attitude towards “treasure”:
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21, ESV)

Then in 6:24 we have another warning about money/riches/wealth:
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Matthew 6:24, ESV).

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Love of Money [2]

When we consider these verses in light of the opening and closing of Matthew 6, we see a theme of trusting God to provide our needs and grant us an everlasting reward – rather than spending our lives worrying about how others perceive us (eg; living a superficial religious life) or how our financial and material needs will be met (see vv. 25-34 and the Lord’s Prayer).

So what to make of Jesus’ comments, smack in the middle of this discourse, about the eye being the lamp of the body? Is this a random thought bubble; an accidental “combo-breaker”; or could it actually be part of the key theme of the passage?

People have often interpreted these verses as a stand-alone point about our spiritual “focus” (thus the “Eye”). It runs something like, if your eye (or heart) is focused on things that are good, you’ll be filled with light (goodness), but if your eye/heart is focused on things which are evil, you’ll be full of darkness (and at risk of spiritual condemnation). While this interpretation could fit roughly with the overall theme (eg; if you focus on heavenly treasures, your soul will be “enlightened”, if you focus on earthly treasures and worldly things, it will be darkened), I discovered what I believe is a much better thematic fit, by looking at what Jesus would have meant by a “good” or “evil” eye.

Evil Eye? [3]
Evil Eye? [3]

Have you ever heard the phrase “to give someone the evil eye”? We usually think of it as a kind of superstitious hex, where one person curses the other through ill-will and perhaps supernatural powers. Or perhaps it just gets used in modern day speech as a synonym for a scowl or a dirty look. But the phrase had a different meaning in the biblical culture.

In Deuteronomy 15:7-11, Yahweh instructs His people concerning how they are to treat their poor brethren in the land of Israel: “”If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, ‘The seventh year, the year of release is near,’ and your eye look grudgingly on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the LORD against you, and you be guilty of sin. You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’ (Deuteronomy 15:7-11, ESV)

Verse 9 more literally speaks of someone’s eye being evil against their poor brother. Giving them the evil eye means being stingy and begrudgingly refusing to give generously to them to meet their need. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament the phrase “πονηρεύσηται ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου” is very similar to Matthew 6:23’s “ο οφθαλμος σου πονηρος”. So I’d contend that Jesus is talking about someone’s eye being evil (i.e. stingy) rather than just some vague idea of spiritual badness.

On the other hand, the eye being “good” (not “healthy” as the ESV unhelpfully translates) can also have the opposite meaning in the Old Testament. In Proverbs 22:9 the ESV has “Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor.” Again, this is clearly speaking of generosity towards the poor. And the opening Hebrew phrase of the verse is “טוב־עין” – literally “good eye.” Thus, having a “good eye” in the OT meant being liberal or generous to those in need.

So when Jesus makes a seemingly random remark about our eye being good and full of light or evil and full of darkness – He is undoubtedly making an observation about the spiritual state of people’s souls. But He’s specifically talking about our attitudes towards money and resources and how we respond to the needs of those around us. This makes it a perfect fit with the surrounding themes of not accumulating earthly treasures; not trying to serve God and Mammon (wealth) and trusting in our Sovereign Father to supply all our needs.

My sinful tendency to be stingy in different ways comes from my rotten belief that I don’t have enough to go around. I’m not one of the rich, so I can’t give very much to others. But it’s worse than that. My attitudes towards money and my struggle to be as generous as Jesus calls me to be is because of a spiritual sickness – a lack of love for my brother or sister and a lack of trust that God will provide for my material needs (just like he looks after tiny plants and birds).

So next time you see a brother or sister in need, Jesus is saying “Is your eye good or evil towards them?” “Are you full of light or full of darkness?” “Are you generous to those in need, or stingy and bound by selfish greed?”

[1] Mike Lindsey Eye Spy (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) flickr.
[2] Tax Credits Money Girl (CC BY 2.0) flickr.
[3] Phil Balchin 061 – Evil Eyes (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) flickr.

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