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22“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. 23But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! Matthew 6:22-23 NIV

What is being said here. Does the eye and light symbolise something or can it be taken literally?

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In middle eastern thought, the Evil Eye was (and is) a very real thing, and this verse is referencing this superstitious concept. In the introduction to "The Social Sciences and New Testament Interpretation" Dr. Richard Rohrbaugh explains beginning on Page 3:

...the bible was not written for Western readers. ...few Westerners know anything about, much less believe in the evil eye. We are unlikely to know anyone who possesses it or anyone who has suffered from it. Yet it was a nearly universal belief in the Mediterranean world of antiquity, just as it is in that region in the present day (Elliott 1998). Everyone in the Mediterranean area knows that people with the evil eye are dangerous and must be avoided. They all know possessors and victims personally. Amulets to ward off the evil eye are commonplace and understood by everyone. Yet when this phenomenon is talked about in the Bible, as it often is (Prov 23:6; 28:22; Deut 15:7-9; 28:54-57; Sir 14:3-10; 18:18; 31:12-13; 37:7-12; Tob 4:15-17; 4 Macc 1:16; 2:15; Matt 6:22-23; 20:1-15; Mark 7:22; Luke 11:33-36; Gal 3:1), we Westerners know neither how to interpret it nor even how to translate the terms for it.

For example, the NRSV translates Matt 6:22-23a as follows:

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 unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.

Western commentary typically suggests that the problem being addressed is an eye that is not open to the clear light of God. For example, Eduard Schweizer argues that the passage is saying that a "simple" or generous eye "admits God's light into the entire body; an evil eye causes terrible darkness of the heart" (1975:163) In the same way, W.F. Albright and C.S. Mann suggest that the basic idea is that just as the body is illuminated by the physical eye (as though that organ were a window), so the whole spirit of a person is either illuminated or in darkness through the spiritual eye (1971:81). The point seems to be that an unhealthy eye is bad for the one possessing it.

But in the Middle East, an evil eye is bad for the person being looked at. The ancient Middle Eastern belief was that light is literally generated in the heart and is transmitted out through the eye onto whatever objects are in one's gaze. Because heart and eye are closely bound together, the good or evil light that originates in the heart is always revealed by what comes forth from the eye. The eye thus reveals the character of a person. Good-hearted people possess good eyes and throw off good light; evil -hearted persons possess evil eyes and throw off evil light. Moreover, since this light actually falls on whatever a person looks at, it also brings into being what the heart producing it intends. In this way generous persons can look on others and do actual good, while nevious persons can look on others and do real damage. A culturally sensitive translation would therefore read differently:

The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your heart is generous (ἁπλοῡς, haplous), your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is evil (πονηρός, ponērós), your whold body will be full of darkness.

Our commentary on this passage would have to recognize that genuine fear of the evil eye was a constant concern to Jesus' hearers. They regularly practicecd strategies to avoid being looked at by anyone possessing it (m. Abot 2.12-13). They would have quickly recognized that Jesus was talking about light that originates in the heart, shines outward onto another, and could do them either good or evil with a mere glance. Jesus' comment therefore addresses a commonplace of everyday life for ancient Mediterranean people even though it requires considerable cross-cultural interpretation in order for readers in the modern West to understand it.

Albright, W.F., and C.S. Mann
1971 Matthew. AB 26. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday
Eliott, John H. 1988 "The Fear of the Leer: The Evil Eye from the Bible to Lil Abner." *Forum 4:42-71

Therefore, this passage is an instruction to maintain a good spirit of blessing which seeks to help anyone we encounter and not maintain an evil heart which ignores the plight or even worsens their plight through apathy towards those we meet and the bystander effect - or even worse: to worsen their plight.

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1. Context

Matthew 6:22-23 is sandwiched between two passages explicitly about wealth, and the three passages together form a unit with 6:25-34 which is related to possessions and the necessities of life. The logical flow is:

  1. 19-21 Do not be short-sighted (seek treasure that will last)
  2. 22-23 ?
  3.    24 Do not be double-minded (you cannot serve God and money)
  4. 25-34 Do not be anxious (seek righteousness and your material needs will be met)

This indicates that we should at least consider the possibility that there is a link to wealth in 22-23 as well.

2. Internal logic

The phrase "The eye is the lamp of the body" can be interpreted in two ways. Either the eye, belonging to the body, shines outward (like the headlight of a car), or the eye is the light that enlightens the body itself, ie it shines inward. The latter interpretation is key to understanding Jesus' logic because the condition of the eye/lamp is what determines whether the "whole body will be full of light/darkness".

3. Metaphors

The two remaining exegetical questions concern the two metaphors used:

  1. What does it mean here for the eye to be either 'healthy' or 'bad'
  2. What is the meaning here of 'darkness' and 'light'

4. Light and darkness

There is a general association between light and good, and darkness and evil, throughout scripture.

The only other mention in the Sermon on the Mount fits the pattern of light corresponding to what is good:

14“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5, ESV

5. Healthy or bad eyes

The NET Bible translation notes indicate that the word used for 'bad' can also mean “evil”. This allows the possibility that Jesus is consciously alluding to Proverbs 28:22:

A stingy man hastens after wealth and does not know that poverty will come upon him. ESV

... because the phrase 'A stingy man' is literally 'A man whose eye is evil'

6. Conclusion

What is being said here. Does the eye and light symbolise something or can it be taken literally?

  1. These verses are about wealth like the surrounding context.
  2. Jesus is alluding to a Hebrew proverb and idiom concerning those whose 'eye is evil' or 'are stingy'
  3. If a man is stingy (ie seeking after worldly wealth for himself), he is poisoning his soul. seeking after what is good instead improves his internal condition.
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    The NIV has an interesting note here that says the Greek has a connotation of generous/stingy. Checking BDAG, it suggests that when ἁπλοῦς/πονηρός are used with eye they form a sort of idiom; with πονηρός referencing the idea of "concealing one's jealousy over another's good fortune and 'melting one's eye' in the process." Naturally, this would strengthen your conclusion. – ThaddeusB Aug 27 '15 at 23:44
  • @Jack Could the eye symbolize a clean conscience...just a thought – Martin Feb 24 '17 at 6:36
  • @Martin it symbolises 'desire' as in 'a roving eye', or more in keeping with the context: 'keeping one eye on his bank balance'. – Jack Douglas Feb 24 '17 at 9:21
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My perspective is that this section is not about wealth first and foremost but of the mutual exclusivity of the two kingdoms - man vs God. The "lead-in" sections on treasures and the eye as the lamp of the body each bring us closer to this conclusion, with v24 making it explicitly clear. v24 also informs our understanding of v22-23.

I lean towards the interpretations of the eye being good as "single" or "clean", indicating a need for singular focus on God. The opposite of this is to have a "bad" eye which tries to focus on both this world and God's kingdom at the same time, causing spiritual double-vision and resulting in hatred of God.

I lean away from the other interpretation of good/evil eyes being word plays on greediness/stinginess. To reach into Proverbs seems a looser support than just examining the immediate context as well as the overarching purpose for the sermon on the mount. Namely:

How different this new kingdom is and its citizens are to be in contrast to the kingdom of this world.

As a bonus, I think it also expounds upon the introductory beatitude on the pure in heart, with pure denoting a single-hearted focus in order to "see God" which parallels the 'eye as the lamp of the body' section.

To see this passage as just an impromptu lesson on fiscal stewardship or a warning on the dangers of money would be to miss the grandness and personal implications of the kingdom of God.

  • (+1) This is a fairly good answer. Why exactly is Jack's verse from Proverbs a weak support, when it contains a Hebrew phrase which literally speaks of "a man whose eye is evil"? This seems like a fairly sound demonstration that Jesus is referring to a phrase which was well established many hundreds of years before the source passage. – Steve Taylor Jan 27 '17 at 15:37
  • Apologies as I edited my answer for better clarity and succinctness. I think "weak" is too strong and changed it to "looser". I am not disagreeing with the link or reference; it may in fact be another layer to the passage's meaning. But I think the primary meaning of "single" vs "double" for "good" vs "evil" fits better with the immediate context and the purpose of the sermon. – Frank H. Jan 27 '17 at 15:38
  • I might ask you and Jack the same question - why is the interpretation of greedy/stingy more clearly what Jesus meant, as opposed to single/double vision? His outline of this section (treasures, eye, masters, anxiety) is far more fragmented given his interpretation. My outline would be: 19-21 Your heart (thoughts and emotions, not just emotions) cannot be divided. 22-23 Your eye (how you view the world) cannot be divided on both kingdom realities. 24 Why can't we be divided? Because you will end up hating God. 25-34 Anxiousness and worry will result. – Frank H. Jan 27 '17 at 15:43
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    I think @JackDouglas makes his case fairly clear above when he starts with the immediate context in his Section 1 - not (treasures, eye, masters, anxiety), but rather (treasures, greed, money, material needs), which doesn't strike me as 'fragmented'. They're two competing interpretations and I see most of your material as a positive contribution. But I'm not seeing your grounds for seeing his argument as any 'looser' than yours. – Steve Taylor Jan 27 '17 at 15:56
  • Fair enough! Again, just my personal opinion. Not saying his interpretation doesn't make sense, I just think it makes less sense. :) – Frank H. Jan 27 '17 at 16:01
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This particular passage was sometimes cited by the Church Fathers in the context of watchfulness or sobriety. John Cassian (360-435), for example, writes:

There are many among us who have endured fasting and vigils, or have withdrawn into the desert, or have practiced poverty to such an extent that they have not left themselves enough for their daily sustenance, or have performed acts of compassion so generously that they no longer have anything to give; and yet these same monks, having done all this, have nevertheless fallen away miserably from virtue and slipped into vice.

What was it, then, that made them stray from the straight path? In my opinion it was simply that they did not possess the grace of discrimination; for it is this virtue that teaches a man to walk along the royal road, swerving neither to the right through immoderate self-control, nor to the left through indifference and laxity. Discrimination is a kind of eye and lantern of the soul, as is said in the gospel passage: "The light of the body is the eye; if therefore your eye is pure, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is evil, your whole body will be full of darkness' (Matt. 6: 22-3). And this is just what we find; for the power of discrimination, scrutinizing all the thoughts and actions of a man, distinguishes and sets aside everything that is base and not pleasing to God, and keeps him free from delusion.

"On the Holy Fathers of Sketis and Discrimination", from The Philokalia, Vol. 1 (tr. Faber and Faber, 1979), p.99

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I believe this scripture is dealing with the things we set our eyes on. By setting our sights on what is ungodly, we allow darkness to enter our hearts. By setting our eyes on the things of our Lord, we receive light.

Here are some scriptures that I feel support this view:

"For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God" (Hebrews 11:10 ESV).

And

"If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory" (Colossians 3:1-4 ESV).

  • Thanks chief, your answer was an eye opener. In other words the eyes symbolize our intention/will & light symbolize the Holy spirit. BTW it seems that this is your first post here...Welcome to Hermeneutics.stackexchange – Martin Oct 11 '13 at 8:44
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Jesus is trying to say that if you always look at things the wrong way, your whole body will be darkness. Example: Matthew 20:1-16. The householder is not being evil because he gave the same salary to the laborers who started later, he is being generous, but the eyes of the ones who started earlier are seeing the householder as unjust while he is being good, so their eye is being evil. See Jesus taught us not to judge at all to begin with. If we look at G-d and fail to see the good then the evil is in our eyes not in Him.

  • I'm very grateful for your participation here. Welcome to our Biblical Hermeneutics Q&A site! We're a little different from a forum, so do take the site tour if you haven't already. – Paul Vargas Mar 23 '15 at 16:31
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From an Eastern perspective, I was taught that the reference to "If Thine Eye Be Single, Thy Whole Body Shall Be Full Of Light" is literal not a metaphor. You are taking what is literal as a metaphor. The light of God is overwhelming and is seen at the Third or Single Eye.

  • Hi Frances, welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange, thanks for contributing! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites. – Steve Taylor May 23 '16 at 7:49
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    This is a good start to an answer, but doesn't show its work, which is a requirement on this site. A good answer will demonstrate the reasons for arriving at its conclusions, and make a full attempt at answering the question and explaining its text(s) in context. – Steve Taylor May 23 '16 at 7:51

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