Jesus' Strange Teaching About a 'Single Eye'
Lois Tverberg, En-Gedi
The Bible is an ancient book, and the honest
reader will admit that often, its passages are difficult to understand. Sometimes
Jesus' words can be the most difficult, and prone to speculation and even
misinterpretation. A case in point is Jesus' saying from the Sermon on the
The light of the body is the eye: if
therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.
But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness.
(Matt 6:22-23, KJV)
Every Bible translation
attempts to explain this obscure saying by clarifying the phrases about one's "eye." Various
translations use terms like clear eye/bad eye (NASB), healthy eye/unhealthy
eye (NRSV), eyes are good/eyes are bad (NIV). None of these adequately explain Jesus' idea to modern readers.
This opens the door for all sorts of interpretations. John Wesley, who
lived in the 1700's, interpreted the "single eye" as being utterly
devoted to pleasing God, and the "evil eye" as having our interests
devoted anywhere else, to distract us from God. 1 While his interpretation
is well within traditional understanding, others have come to different
Some in the New Age movement believe that Jesus was speaking
of the "single eye" as the "third eye" or inner eye
of enlightenment. They say that when humans were first created perfect,
they were enlightened by this third eye, but after the fall, it is now
only reached through meditation. 2
One author believes that Jesus was
talking about a medical condition called "polyopia," which results
in multiple visual images and astigmatism, which was was Jesus meant by
the "bad eye" that does not have single vision.3
interpretation agrees more with the Scriptures as a whole, we still have to admit that he was guessing at the meaning of
the strange phrase, without knowing its cultural context. Christians
have the frustrating task of defending one interpretation over another,
when are all based in subjective interpretation.
A Cultural Perspective — A Good Eye
A better way to discern what Jesus was saying is to look at his words
in the context of his first century culture. All languages have idioms
— figures of speech that don't make sense literally, like "raining
cats and dogs," "beating around the bush" or "pulling
someone's leg." We should expect that Jesus' sayings may contain
cultural idioms that we don't understand. Indeed, in the Greek gospels
we find many idiomatic phrases that sound awkward or don't make sense
in Greek, even though they make perfect sense in Hebrew. 4 By looking
at the Semitic idioms in the Old Testament and in Jewish literature of
Jesus' day, we can get a much clearer understanding of Jesus' teaching,
and have more confidence about Jesus' message.
One interesting hypothesis is that Jesus may have been using a Hebraic
idiom that contrasts a "good eye" (ayin tovah) and a "bad eye" or "evil eye" (ayin rah). The Hebraic
understanding of "seeing" goes beyond taking in visual information
in the eyes — it refers to one's outlook on life and attitude toward others.
It can even mean to respond according to a need that is seen. For example,
the phrase "Jehovah Jireh" is often translated "God will
provide," but it means, literally, "God will see," meaning
that when God sees our need, he will respond.
An idiom that emerged out this idea is that a person with a "good eye" is generous — he sees
the needs of others and wants to help them. In contrast, one with an "bad
eye" or "evil eye" is blind to the needs of others and
is greedy and focused on his own self-gain. We find these idioms in
Prov. 22:9 He who is generous (literally,
has a good eye) will be blessed, for he gives some of his food
to the poor.
Prov. 23:6 Do not eat the food of a stingy man (literally, an evil
eye), do not crave his delicacies; for he is the kind of man who
is always thinking about the cost.
Prov. 28:22 A man with a bad eye hastens after wealth and does
not know that want will come upon him.
In fact, Jesus uses the idiom of "evil
eye" for greed elsewhere in the gospels. At the end of the parable
of the landowner who pays all the laborers the same, the landowner says
to the workers, 'Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is
my own? Or is your eye evil because I am generous?' (Matt. 20:15).
The Greek phrase there, "opthalmous sou ponerous" is
identical to that in Matt 6:23, the passage that we are examining.
Interestingly, if this is our interpretation of the passage in Matthew
6, Jesus' saying suddenly fits into the larger context of this passage.
Here is the longer context of that saying:
But store up for yourselves treasures in
heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not
break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will
be also. The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye
is clear, 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
that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! No
one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love
the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot
serve God and wealth. (Matt 6:21-24, NASB)
Right before the "eye" analogy, Jesus tells
his listeners to "store up treasures in heaven," which is an
idiom for giving money to the poor. 5
Afterward he says, "No one can serve two masters ... you cannot serve
God and wealth." (Matt 6:24). If Jesus is using the idioms "good
eye" and "evil eye" to mean generosity and greed with money,
the teaching about ones "eye" now fits perfectly into a longer
saying about how to use money in a way that honors God.
Having a Single Eye
Any hypothesis needs to be re-evaluated in light of new evidence, and
one scholar suggests that Jesus may actually be using a slightly different
phrase than "good eye," even though he is still contrasting
it with a "bad eye." The Greek of the passage does not say
"good" (kalos) but "single, simple" (haplous).
But, the idea of "singleness of eye" as a virtue is also
found in other documents from Jesus' time, and "singleness"(haplotes)
as a virtue is used several other places in the New Testament.6 This can
also give us insight on Jesus' meaning in this passage. One document reads:
"I never slandered anyone, nor did
I censure the life of any man, walking as I did in singleness of
eye" (3:4)... "And now hearken to me, my children, and
walk in singleness of heart
The single [minded] man
covets not gold
There is no envy in his thoughts, nor [does
he] worry with insatiable desire in his mind. For he walks in singleness,
and beholds all things in uprightness of heart
my children, the law of God, and attain singleness...7
Here the idea of "singleness of eye"
means sincerity, simplicity, and a freedom from envy for money. It is
the opposite of having a "double heart" as in Psalm 12:2: "They
speak falsehood to one another; with flattering lips and with a double
heart they speak." A person with a "single eye" is
one of integrity who does not have a secret agenda of self-advancement.
Along with sincerity of spirit, he also has an integrity toward money
that keeps him from covetousness and greed. Another passage from about
the same time also gives insight:
The good man has not an eye of darkness that cannot see; for he shows mercy to all men, sinners though they
may be, and though they may plot his ruin
His good mind will not
let him speak with two tongues, one of blessing and one of cursing,
one of insult and one of compliment, one of sorrow and one of joy, one
of hypocrisy and one of truth, one of poverty and one of wealth; but
it has a single disposition only, simple and pure, that says
the same thing to everyone. 8
Interestingly this passage talks about a man's "eye" in terms of his caring for the needs of others, and contrasts
an "eye of darkness" to a disposition of "singleness."
The contrast is between pretending to care about others with
an inward attitude of self-advancement, compared to having a genuine concern
for others, without hidden motives. Some phrases here are very similar
to the book of James. 9
Reading Jesus' Words Again
In light of the idioms of a "single eye" meaning integrity and
a sincere attitude toward others, and "bad eye" meaning a greedy
and self-centered outlook, now Jesus' words have much more clarity in
their context. Here is my dynamic translation of Matthew 6:21-24, incorporating
the idiomatic language he appears to be using:
So give generously to the poor and invest
your energy and resources in eternal things, because when you do, your
priorities and outlook will change. Your outlook toward others shows
your true inner self. If you have a sincere, un-envious heart that wants
to help others, your whole personality will shine because of it. But
if you blind to the needs of others and are self-centered and greedy,
your soul will be dark indeed. You cannot be a slave to your own greed
and try to serve God — you have to choose.
In this entire passage, Jesus seems to be
equating how we use our money with our basic attitude on life, and says
that our generosity is the true measure of us as persons. When you get right down
to it, if money rules us, God doesn't. It is one of Jesus' many teachings
on money and what our attitude should be about it. In our
materialistic culture, his words hit home.
This cultural study of the phrase "single eye" and "bad
eye" can shed a lot of light on Jesus' teachings. It should make
us eager to learn more when we see that the strange phrases that we sometimes
find in the Bible had parallels in other ancient texts that can help explain
them. Our interpretation of Jesus' words can be much more solid, so that
we have confidence that we are hearing Jesus' ideas and not just our own.
Otherwise, our interpretations are based on speculation from personal
experience that can lead us down all sorts of strange paths, as some have
gone on in understanding Jesus' words about "the single eye."
But, as important as it is to read the Bible accurately, it is even more
important that once we understand Jesus' teaching, we take it to heart
and change our lives because of it. Are we people of sincerity and integrity?
Do we use our money to help others, and find ways to meet their needs?
Or, in our hearts, is our own comfort and wealth our number one priority?
Jesus is saying that we can't be both greedy and self-centered, and followers
of him. We need to choose who we will serve — God or ourselves.
1 John Wesley, On A Single Eye - Sermon available at this
2 The Third Eye Chakra - Available at this link
3 Robert Zilver, The New Evil Eye Theory — Electronic book available from http://www.polyopiestichting.nl/
4 This is the subject of the book Understanding the Difficult Words
of Jesus: New Insights from a Hebraic Perspective by Bivin & Blizzard,
1994, Destiny Image Publishers.
5 See Matthew 19:2, Mark 10:21, Luke 18:22 and "The
Best Long-Term Investment: Making Loans to God" at www.jerusalemperspective.com.
6 See "If
Your Eye Be Single" by Steven Notley at www.jerusalemperspective.com.
7 Testament of Issachar, 3:4, 4:1-2, 5-6; 5:1 (quoted in the article Notley
article above). The Testament of Issachar is of the body of literature called
the "pseudepigrapha" - Jewish writings from 200 B.C. to 200 A.D.
that are not canonical, but show the cultural expressions and religious
understandings of that time.
8 Testament of Benjamin 4:2-3 (quoted in the article Notley article above).
Also of the pseudepigrapha.
9 James speaks about the wrongness of having a "double mind"
in vs. 1:8 and 4:8 and the importance of sincerity of the tongue in 3:9-12.
He uses a very similar phrase as in this passage in 3:9 - having a tongue
of "blessing and cursing" - which should not be the case. A related
word to "haplous" used in the gospels, "haplotes," meaning "singleness", is used often in the New Testament for sincerity,
especially in exhortations to have a "single heart" (See 2 Cor.
1:12, 11:3, Eph. 6:5, Col. 3:22).
Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D.,
OurRabbiJesus.com. All rights reserved. This article is copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission for use, contact Tverberg@OurRabbiJesus.com.
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