The Lamp of the Body

MATTHEW 6:22-34
It is easy to think of Jesus as a giver of great sayings. He is, so we tend to think, a remarkable depository of aphorisms – short little statements of truth that stand on their own, useful in a variety of situations.

From the Sermon on the Mount alone a number of Jesus’ sayings and turns of phrase have made their way into mainstream Christian consciousness (and beyond): “You are the salt of the earth”, “You cannot serve both God and money,” “Judge not that you be not judged,” “Do not cast pearls before swine,” etc.

But, in fact, Jesus is not just a teacher of wisdom, and His purpose is not just to provide a new set of proverbs for the Christian to follow. One and all, these sayings of Jesus, along with countless others, are intended to work in conjunction with Jesus’ much larger message. And in the case of the Sermon on the Mount – as we have already seen several times – the purpose is to ask a relatively simple question: What does citizenship in Jesus’ new Kingdom look like?

In 6:22, Jesus offers another saying that has commonly been pulled out of context:

“The eye is the lamp of the body.”

This saying has pervaded popular culture far beyond the bounds of Christianity – it is the basis behind the truly mystical sounding: “The eyes are the window to the soul”, which is ambiguous enough to have just about any meaning we choose to give to it.

But when Jesus made this observation, He meant something. He intended to say something profound about the Christian life that would make it different from the lives of those around us. He immediately followed this saying with teachings about money and about worry and anxiety, and He was intending His words to be life-shaping and life-giving.

So perhaps we should take a moment and unpack Jesus’ meaning.

I prefer to read verse 22 of chapter 6 (“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light”) as the beginning of a new section of Jesus’ sermon – a section that continues to the end of the chapter (including Jesus’ teachings about money and about worry).

To see how these various teachings are tied together, we have to know what Jesus meant by a “healthy eye”. Does this just mean, “an eye with good vision”, or is there something else going on here? In fact, the Greek word translated “healthy” (haplous) only occurs twice in the entire New Testament (the only other time being in the parallel verse in Luke 11:34), and it is not the word that is commonly used for “physical” health. In fact, this particular word is more accurately translated as “simple” or “single”.

Jesus, in other words, is calling us to a “singular” vision in order to be filled with the Kingdom’s light. He is calling us to focus our sights, to look only at one thing – and, thankfully, that one thing is perfectly summarized at the close of this chapter: “But seek first the Kingdom of God and His Righteousness and all these things will be added to you”.

That is what it means to have a “healthy eye”; that is an eye that will be open and letting light flood the body. But, on the opposite end of the spectrum, Jesus observes, “If your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness” (6:23). Again, the word translated “bad” has a much more complex meaning in the Greek, and speaks, not just of moral wickedness, but of something that is oppressed by hardship and heavy labor; full of peril and toil.

In other words, the eye that is “healthy” is an eye that is focused on “the Kingdom of God and His righteousness,” not being allowed to wander toward all of life’s distractions and worries; the eye that is “bad” is an eye that is weighed down under the toil and oppression of the world and its many concerns. That is an eye that lets no light in, that leads its owner into darkness.

When we look at Jesus’ statements in this way, I think that the rest of chapter 6 can be seen in a whole new light! Jesus first applies this saying to the topic of money: “No one can serve two masters… You cannot serve God and money” (6:19, 24b). The eye that is healthy and “singular” will be focused on serving God, and to turn our eye toward money or success or any other supposed source of “happiness” will only blur our vision.

Likewise, this is what Jesus wants us to see as the answer to life’s worries, specifically worry “about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear…” (6:25). These are all things – even legitimate things – that can easily pry our focus away from the Kingdom, where our true hope lies. “Don’t worry about these things,” Jesus proclaims, “because you have a good Father who feeds and clothes” – instead, we are called to, “seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you.”

We are not called to go naked or hungry, but to place Jesus and His Kingdom first, as our true mission. That is certainly a difficult task – perhaps at times it might even seem impossible – but it is the standard to which we are all called as citizens of the Kingdom; and it is a standard that promises life and light and freedom from worry and anxiety. It is a life singularly focused on God, freed from the darkness that comes from the things of the world. So it is difficult, indeed, but it is a life that is unquestionably worth pursuing.