Eyes: The Lamp of the Body

I learned from the author of Matthew that I was too quick to speak when I once said that we can always know whether or not we are on the path of discipleship or when we are about to make a drastic misstep.

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I still stand by that conviction but it's not exactly that simple; my truism definitely needs conditioning. I’ll state it again with Matthew’s proviso: We can discern when we are obedient disciples when we view our lives through the sound eye of God’s revelation accessible to us in Scripture and in the internal word of the Holy Spirit. We’ll come back to this restatement later, in the meantime I’d like to say a bit about perception.

The need to perceive accurately came home to me when I was in the hospital with Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a neurological illness. First, the smell of Kleenex made me gag. Never before have I nearly brought up when I had to blow my nose! My next perceptional distortion had to do with coffee. When I was well enough to drink fluids I anticipated the first sip of my favourite drink - freshly ground coffee - but I could not hold it down. It tasted wretched. So too did cold water; it was as bitter as could be. The objective smell of Kleenex and the taste of coffee and water did not change but my perception of them sure did, and in an utterly convincing way. Had I never encountered Kleenex, coffee or water before I would have assumed they were just foul items to be avoided. Because I possess a memory and have dependable friends who told me that Kleenex did not cause gagging, coffee is the nectar of the gods and nothing beats ice cold water for a parched palate, I would have to revise my opinions. How could I dogmatically hold on to my perceptual convictions?

"The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be fully of light..." (Matthew 6:22, 23 ESV).

Closer to Matthew’s text, my sense of sight was skewed. I initially noticed this while facing the hospital curtain between my roommate Andy and me. Andy had hung up a colourful curtain, full of swirling designs. The designs however seemed to be moving and flowing. I thought I was hallucinating (very psychedelic). This was only the beginning. Soon I started seeing people and things in double or even triplicate, certainly not the way I normally did. Again my friends and the doctors came to the perceptual rescue, telling me that I was cross-eyed, first in my right eye and then in my left. Had I believed what I saw, I would have bet that on the drive home from the hospital the cars on the other side of the boulevard were actually headed directly for the front of our car. It was freaky.

So much for the theory that “you've got to see it or taste it to believe it.” I couldn’t safely rely on my neurologically-impaired perceptions anymore than we could if we banked on my brash statement that “a disciple can always know when they are following God or not.” To perceive accurately you must be healthy. To discern the condition of our discipleship, we need to be spiritually sound.

Contemporary and First Century Christians view perception quite differently. If we were writing Matthew 6:22, 23 today we would likely not use the image of eyes being lamps or torches. We might try on another metaphor, one that emphasizes that the eyes reflects what is outside. The idea of window or mirror might be more to our liking. Aristotle said that everybody in his day knew that, “The organ of sight has its own fire.” Our trusty Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia explains:

"The first conception of sight was the 'emission theory' which maintained that vision occurs when rays emanate from the eyes and are intercepted by visual objects. If we saw an object directly it was by 'means of rays' coming out of the eyes and again falling on the object. A refracted image was, however, seen by 'means of rays' as well, which came out of the eyes, traversed through the air, and after refraction, fell on the visible object which was sighted as the result of the movement of the rays from the eye. This theory was championed by scholars like Euclid and Ptolemy and their followers."

Ancient Hebrews also spoke in this manner: “The light of the eyes rejoices the heart.” Sirach, a book written closer to Matthew’s time, alluded to the eyes of God: “The eyes of the Lord are ten thousand times brighter than the sun,” meaning of course that he can see everywhere.

It is not just the physiological differences that should be noted but the way that the ancients used the image of “the eyes as a lamp” morally. Eyes can be either good or bad, sound or unsound, healthy or unhealthy, single or divided. To have bad eyes is not just to be short or longsighted but to be fundamentally skewed. Bad eyes are from a Jewish point of view 'evil eyes' that see things maliciously; they are prone to envy, greed, selfishness, and even hatred of others.

In extra-Biblical Judaism there is a connotation that to be looked at by one with an evil eye could 'magically' bring devastation to the victim. Biblical tradition doesn’t go that far but it is not much of a stretch to understand that being the object of an evil eye could result in some sort of psychologically or spiritually toxic effect. Hateful toxic eyes contaminate situations. That said, the emphasis ought to be on the moral intention of those whose eyes are bad.

Morally unsound eyes blind individuals. They cannot see life from God’s point of view. There is a similarity between morally skewed perception and hardness of heart. Both allude to the spiritual, intellectual and emotional intentions of a person. They are both whole person-oriented images. Hardhearted individuals with evil eyes live in darkness morally and spiritually. They are insensitive to God’s will:

"But to this day the LORD has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear" (Deuteronomy 29:4 ESV).

“Hear this, O foolish and senseless people, who have eyes, but see not, who have ears, but hear not" (Jeremiah 5:21 ESV).

“Go to this people, and say, ‘You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed; lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them’" (Acts 28:26–27 ESV).

"...as it is written, 'God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day'” (Romans 11:8 ESV).

In Matthew’s time the recalcitrant rejection of Jesus the Messiah by the Scribes and Pharisees are prime examples of an evil eye. Jesus asks these leaders, "Is thine eye evil, because I am good?'” (Matthew 20:15 KJV).

Those who carry the revelation of God, who see by an internal light that streams out through their eyes illuminating the situation are called disciples. They are like the people of Israel who were to be torah witnesses to the nations who lived in darkness. Disciples are those who dwell in God’s light, thus they have the capacity to see as God sees. Paul the Apostle might have picked up Matthew’s metaphor and expanded it when he wrote:

"For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6 ESV).

“Having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints..." (Ephesians 1:18 ESV).

Matthew’s proviso clarifies my view that you can always know if you are on or off the path of discipleship. The Gospel author tells us that we must make a self-examination by asking if we are filled with light or darkness? How good is my spiritual eye? Matthew’s principle of self-critique involves another image from another part of the Sermon on the Mount. To judge the condition of our spiritual vision we need to evaluate the results of our actions. If they are spiritually fruitful they obviously reflect a soundness of spiritual insight.

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits" (Matthew 7:15-20 ESV).

“Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Matthew 12:33–34 ESV).

Matthew’s challenge to disciples is to practise a spirituality that exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees. The only way that righteousness can be inculcated is through the purity of a sound eye tested by the fruit of our behaviour. We are to shine the revelation of Christ through our perceptions. Daniel Patté in his Gospel of Matthew summarizes it well, “Your eye is that through which your vocation is implemented and internalized.”

If we are not spiritually cross-eyed what can we discern? The Sermon on the Mount tells us that we can know what the Father is doing (6:25-34); what is evil or bad in ourselves (7:1-5); to distinguish between holy and unholy (7:6) and what is bad for our children ourselves and others (7:7-12). That is an exhaustive list but the revelation of God allows us to see with the mind of Christ and thus to see clearly in and through him.

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