Kingdom economics: How’s your eye?

by K.W. Leslie, 22 November

Matthew 6.22-23, Luke 11.34-36.

Some of Jesus’s teachings tend to get skipped entirely.

Let’s be honest: It’s because we don’t like them. Plenty of us hate the idea the Law still counts, and God judges us by it; we prefer dispensationalism. Plenty of us hate Jesus’s teachings on money, ’cause we still kinda worship it. So we borrow his parables about forgiveness, where money wasn’t even the point, and try to claim they’re about capitalism. Or socialism. Or they’re Jesus’s secret critique of socialism. Whichever suits us best.

Today’s lesson from the Sermon on the Mount is in fact about money. Not opthamology.

But because people nowadays are unfamiliar with the Hebrew idioms “good eye” and “evil eye”—and will even mix ’em up with the European idioms, and think they have to do with all-purpose blessings and curses—we’ll interpret this passage all kinds of wrong. Or claim, “Well it’s obscure,” and skip it. Usually skip it, and focus on the verses we can understand. Verses we figure we’re already following.

So in Matthew, right after saying we oughta keep our treasures in heaven, Jesus taught this:

Matthew 6.22-23 KWL
22 “The body’s light is the eye. So when your eye is healthy, your whole body will be bright.
23 When your eye is ill, your whole body is dark.
So if the light in you is dark, how dark are you?”
Luke 11.34-36 KWL
34 “The body’s light is your eye. Whenever your eye is healthy, your whole body is bright too.
Once it’s ill, your body is dark too. 35 So watch out so the light in you isn’t dark.
36 So if your whole body is bright, without having any parts dark,
the whole will be bright—as if a lamp could shine lightning for you.”

In the King James Version, in both gospels, the words to describe the eye are thus:

  • Ἁπλοῦς/aplús, “healthy,” is translated “single.”
  • Πονηρὸς/ponirós, “ill,” is translated “evil.”

Why? Well… ’cause that’s what the words literally mean. That’s the problem with idioms. Literal translations, and likewise literal interpretations, give you the wrong idea. If I described you as “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” then had that phrase translated into Chinese, my poor Chinese friend would find it inaccurate if you actually have brown eyes… and be stunned to hear you have a tail at all, much less a bushy one.

By aplús and ponirós Jesus meant a healthy eye, or a sick one. If your eyes aren’t well, vision’s gonna be a problem, and you’re gonna be in the dark. But if your eyes are healthy, you’ll see just fine: Light could enter your body “as if a lamp could shine lightning for you,” Lk 11.36 which interestingly is just how 19th-century arc lamps worked.

Well, light could more or less get into us. Remember, Jesus is teaching religion, not anatomy. Only the truly dumbest of literalists are gonna insist since our eyes work, our doctors won’t need to use the lights on the laryngoscope. Or colonoscope.

But okey: When the eyes work, our bodies have light; when they don’t, things are so dark. And that’s as far as way too many Christians go: Okay, working eyes are good; light is good; kinda stating the obvious there Jesus. Maybe it has to do with keeping our eyes open. Only looking at good things. Receiving revelation from God. Or “Be careful little eyes what you see” and all that. Shun evil. And all sorts of other things we can drag from our culture, and overlay upon the verse.

As the Expositor’s Bible Commentary initially puts it—getting it wrong, as usual—

“The eye is the lamp of the body” Mt 6.22 in the sense that through the eye the body finds its way. The eye lets in light, and so the whole body is illuminated. But bad eyes let in no light, and the body is in darkness. Mt 6.23 The “light within you” seems ironic; those with bad eyes, who walk in darkness, think they have light, but this light is in reality darkness. The darkness is all the more terrible for failure to recognize it for what it is. cf. Jn 9.41

This fairly straightforward description has metaphorical implications. The “eye” can be equivalent to the “heart.” The heart set on God so as to hold to his commands Ps 119.10 is equivalent to the eye fastened on God’s law. Ps 119.18, 119.148, 119.36-37 Similarly Jesus moves from “heart” Mt 6.21 to “eye.” Mt 6.22-23 Moreover the text moves between physical description and metaphor by the words chosen for “good” and “bad.”

D.A. Carson, EBC at Matthew 6.22-23

The EBC does finally get to the interpretation I’ll explain in the next section, but only briefly. Most of the exposition is about moral goodness and badness.

But the proper way to interpret it isn’t to assume it’s a common metaphor which our culture can easily sort out. How might Jesus’s culture understand this verse? What would a first-century Jew think he meant by a “single/healthy eye” and an “evil/ill eye”?

Glad I asked. I’ll explain.

The context: Generosity.

Remember, in Matthew this comes right after treasures in heaven, Mt 6.19-21 and right before how we can’t serve two masters—namely God and Mammon. Mt 6.24 Followed by how we ought not stress over stuff. Mt 6.25-34 It sits within a string of lessons about wealth and worry.

In Luke it’s not. It’s preceded by Jesus’s statement that you don’t hide a lamp, but stick it on a stand. Lk 11.33 It’s followed by a separate story where a Pharisee got outraged when Jesus didn’t ritually wash before a meal, so Jesus condemned the prioritizing of dead ritual over living religion. Lk 11.37-41 The overarching theme isn’t wealth, but our hidden bad attitudes. But it’s still a teaching about wealth—and our hidden bad attitudes about it.

In first-century Jewish culture, and for centuries thereafter, good eyes and bad eyes had to do with generosity versus stinginess. A “single eye” possibly had to do with the single-mindedness of people who aren’t double-minded; cf. Jm 1.8 they’re stable, they’re consistent, they aren’t hypocrites. They give because God’s given to them. Mt 10.8 In contrast an “evil eye” is still selfish. More interested in self-preservation than grace. Even greedy.

The Mishna refers to the עַיִן טוֹבָה/ayín tová, “good eye,” as the key to the straight path; as contrasted with the עַיִן רָעָה/ayín rahá, “evil eye,” Avot 2.9 by which R. Eliezer meant generosity versus envy. R. Joshua called the evil eye יֵצֶר הָרָ֖ע/yechér hará, “the evil mind,” the self-centered impulse in everyone which can develop into the sort of hatred for others that’d be perfectly happy to send people to hell. Avot 2.9 It can corrupt even charitable good deeds by making ’em self-centered. Avot 5.13 A good eye is one of the three traits the rabbis expected of their disciples: Like Abraham, they were to be generous, modest, and humble. (As opposed to Balaam, who was grudging, arrogant, and proud.) Avot 5.19

In this context, we realize Jesus’s talk about how those with healthy eyes are full of light, and those with ill eyes are full of darkness, as wordplay. God is light; Jesus brings light into the world; Jn 12.46 he wants us to be full of his light. And if you have good eyes—if you’re generous—you oughta be full of his light. If you have bad eyes—if you’re stingy—it’s gotta be all kinds of dark in you. Profoundly dark.

Wordplay tends to evade the literal-minded. Some of ’em even insist wordplay’s a form of darkness—why can’t Jesus just say what he means, and mean what he says? Why’s he gotta be so clever and subtle? Why’s he gotta make us think? That’s some of the reason they struggle with this interpretation: They couldn’t deduce it with their own wit. They had to look at history books and commentaries, like any good scholar would; but they’d like to think they’d never need any of those reference materials, ’cause they have the Holy Spirit. That, folks, would be Balaam-style pride talking.

Another reason the meaning of this lesson evades people: They’re not generous. They’re not gracious. They believe the needy oughta merit grace. Give to the needy only if it’s gonna pay off for them in the long run; say, the needy will stop being needy, and start contributing right back. But if the needy are a lost cause, give ’em just enough to keep them alive (if that), and give up. It’s not even close to storing up treasure in heaven. It’s venture capitalism, disguised as charity.

The economic system of God’s kingdom.

Because of our fixation on money, we totally miss the fact in God’s kingdom, money doesn’t work like it does in our kingdom. At all.

Too often, Christians attempt to apply human economics to God’s kingdom. Sometimes it’s capitalism, which is about wealth creation. Sometimes socialism, i.e. wealth redistribution. Or communism, which shares the wealth; or Marxism, where the government wholly owns and dispenses it.

Because Christians claim we base our beliefs on the scriptures, we try to defend our existing favorite systems by proof-texting verses which appear to defend ’em. In the United States we have a whole cottage industry of “Christian” financial advisers like Dave Ramsey, who teach common-sense capitalism (which is why they’re usually not wrong) and throw in a lot of Psalms and Proverbs to make it sound like all their stuff is God’s idea. They’re not. It’s all Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, same as every Econ 101 course, with loads of other theories thrown in. Smith’s “invisible hand” is supposed to be Providence, remember?

Here’s why they’re all wrong: Earthly economies are based on scarcity. There are limited number of resources. We must create wealth. We must conserve and defend it once we’ve got it (or, if you’re not capitalist, spread it around). Government must keep its greedy little mitts off it (or, if you’re not capitalist, spread it around) and let it work on its own.

But God’s kingdom doesn’t function like any of our earthly economies. Because it runs on grace. It has no scarcity. It has unlimited resources, run by an almighty king. Nothing runs out. Not even time. Nobody even dies.

In the kingdom, wealth doesn’t come from us. Comes entirely from God. Farmers nowadays figure their crop yields are the result of diligent hard work; farmers in ancient Israel put the seed in the ground, then went home. Didn’t water; that’s what rain was for. Didn’t use pesticides; didn’t think to, but expected God to keep the bugs away. Wealth grew entirely without their input. Mk 4.26-27 They understood how the kingdom works: We put in minimal effort, and God grants us spectacular yields. And throws in additional blessings just for fun, solely out of love.

The crowd of 5,000 could’ve gleaned their own food, but Jesus fed ’em anyway. The folks at the Cana wedding could’ve begged more wine from the neighbors (probably unsuccessfully), but Jesus created some anyway. He gave ’em free healthcare, and inspired Christians to make it one of our most common forms of charity. Yet in the United States not only is it big business, but if it’s not profitable, hospitals won’t bother to treat you. You can go ahead and die.

Mammon has screwed with a lot of American Christians’ thinking. That’s why our eyes are ill: We’ve replaced God’s grace and generosity with, “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.” God ordered farmers to leave the corners of their fields for the needy to glean, Lv 19.10 but try to enact any such thing nowadays, and these Christians will bellyache it’s a handout, it fosters a culture of dependency, that no government should take from the rich and give to the poor; that it’s immoral.

(Of course, offer these same folks a tax break so they can afford college, childcare, healthcare, to buy a house, to give to charity, to mitigate business expenses… and all this “handout” talk evaporates. Nothing about how other people are gonna have to compensate for the tax dollars they no longer have to pay. “Handout” is in the eye of the beholder.)

The kingdom, I repeat, runs on grace. An attitude of generosity is just the sort of fruit we oughta see in people whom God has been so infinitely generous towards. Regular, casual grace: Doing for others. Giving to others. Not just to loved ones, but strangers. Not just what we can afford; sometimes we go beyond what we can afford, simply because they have need. True generosity will sometimes pinch, like when we put our lunch money in the offering plate. We go the distance, not the minimum.

Sadly, we don’t see it as often as we should. Christians love and trust their money more. We’ve been trained to from very young ages. We’d much prefer to think of this passage as nothing more than a metaphor for having a heart set on God… not a rebuke of those who have a heart set on their money.