The Lamp of the Body: Matthew 6:22-23

“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. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”

Matthew 6:22-23 (NRSV)

I have mentioned to others, before, that for a people who claim that the Bible is somehow special or authoritative, we have a tendency to treat it like a collection of fortune-cookie fortunes.  Verses get spooled out of their contexts and dropped on to whatever situation seems to fit.  This is probably appropriate for passages in Proverbs, because many of them are, you know, proverbs – but this passage occurs in a sermon about an upcoming judgement on the world system as it was and a call to the listeners to reject that system and instead embrace a faithful representation of the kingdom of God in the world.

Just prior to this verse, Jesus has offered some counter-examples of Israel’s own leadership failing to do this very thing.  Who are the people making great shows of giving alms, praying long-winded prayers in public, or walking around groaning so that everyone knows they are fasting?  Who are the people who are acquiring wealth and other worldly rewards for themselves?  Who are the people who are bringing other Israelites to the courts?  Who are the ones weaseling out of oaths?  Who are the ones making short marriages of convenience so they can get what they want and cast the woman aside, later?

These are all the power structure within Israel – the Sanhedrin, the Roman-appointed priests and Temple workers, and all those who are doing pretty well for themselves under Roman occupation at the expense of their people’s welfare.  Faithfulness to YHWH is nothing compared to staying on top of the heap and doing well for yourself in a bad situation.

Matthew 23, for one example, is an excoriation of the scribes and Pharisees along very similar lines as presented in the Sermon on the Mount.  (NOTE: We always have to #NotAllPharisees and such when we talk about these groups of people in such generalities.)  Jesus’ harshest words are not for Israel’s worst sinners, nor are they for Rome – they are for the teachers and leaders of Israel who should have been doing what Jesus is having to do.  These people were supposed to have sacrificially shepherded Israel toward being a community of mutual care, forgiveness, healing, restoration, and devotion, but this had not at all been the case for several centuries.

The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.

Ezekiel 34:1-6 (NRSV)

Why go on about this?  Because, in the context of the Sermon, this seems to me to be the most probable referent for an eye that fills its body with darkness.

The idea is that there is some part of the body that, if it stops working, it screws up the whole body.  In this illustration, it is specifically with matters of light and darkness.  If the eye had been full of light, the whole body would be full of light.  If the eye is dark, the whole body will be filled with darkness, and this is obviously the condition Jesus’ teaching ends up on.  “If, then, the light in you is darkness….”

Like other parts of the Sermon, this is a warning.  Don’t become like them.  Listen to what they say, but don’t do what they do.  Their road of seeking money, power, and prestige leads to destruction.

This teaching will be followed by Jesus’ teaching on serving God or serving wealth.

It is an ongoing feature of Israel’s history that her leaders either assimilate into the models of the world around them, or they provoke new faithfulness to YHWH that changes the character of their reign and the prosperity of the people under them, whether we are looking at kings or councils.  On this day when Jesus teaches before the crowds, the stakes are even higher, because the decision isn’t just about what life under so and so will be like – an imminent historical event is on the horizon that will change everything and turn this whole world upside-down, and Jesus wants his listeners to be on the right side of it.

It is hard to avoid making comparisons to the people we think of as being leaders of the people in Christianity, whether we are thinking of the highest ranks of the Vatican, patriarchates of the Orthodox church, megachurch Protestant ministers, and all sorts that fall below and between.  How easy it is to assimilate.  How easy it is to wear the gold and silver, drive the flashy cars, and behave like an emperor (or a CEO).  How easy it is to model oneself after the rich and the powerful the way world powers establish such things.  How easy it is to breathe messages of assimilation, whispering (or shouting) anti-Gospels to congregations fashioning them after your image.

And assimilation doesn’t just take the form of wealth.  Churches can look like political parties.  They can look like hate groups.  They can seize the weapons of this world and wield them, feeling powerful – feeling right.

I don’t think these are the kinds of scenarios Jesus has in mind at the Sermon on the Mount, but at the same time, this is a historical issue with the Church, and we still have it.  We profess to be a new creation, but oh how we love the delights of the old one.  We want numbers.  We want money.  We want office.  We want the respect and regard of our nation, if not its fear.  We parade our Christian professional athletes and business moguls as if somehow being successful in sports or business makes your spirituality more credible.  And the more we become like this – the more our leaders become like this – the less relevant we become.  If the people we look to become just another facet of the world that is passing away, how many more will they take with them?

Consider This

  1. Whom do you respect in Christian circles?  Why?
  2. Some have suggested that consistent Christians should be almost universally reviled.  Is that true?  Who were the kinds of people who were drawn to Jesus?  Who were the kinds of people repulsed by him?