13 August 2016

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!” (vv. 22-23)

Psalm: Psalm 134


There are several interpretations of this curious eye metaphor. Some commentators believe that the metaphor refers to a belief that someone with a healthy eye was generous and compassionate, whilst someone with an unhealthy eye was mean spirited and lacked compassion. Other biblical commentators (see Craig Evans, New Cambridge Bible Commentary on Matthew (CUP, 2012)) refer to a widespread belief in antiquity that eyes actually possessed light, and were an actual source of light which illumined the world around them. The eye was literally a 'lamp' for the body. To have a 'healthy' eye was to be able to illuminate, and bring into clear focus the world around you. If "the lamp of the body" fails, you are plunged into a complete inner and outer darkness. The passage here, many would suggest, is referring to the lack of spiritual insight rather than the physical blindness.

I can never read this text without reflecting on the many conversations held with my friend and colleague John Hull and his perspective as a non-sighted person. Part of John's outstandingly rich legacy was to challenge the reading of Scripture, written as it was by sighted people who associated the lack of sight with sin, corruption and evil. John would speak of this text being experienced very differently by a blind person. The instinctive horror of being "full of darkness" would not be the experience of a blind person. A blind person would not experience this as full of darkness but as normality. John wondered if in fact the whole Sermon on the Mount could be said to be a criticism of the world of sight, the world where what matters is what things look like. Jesus invites us to look and see differently, to pay attention to the world around us and to expose the superficiality of judgements based on appearances.

The starkness of the metaphor can reinforce the false and easy dualism, of good versus bad, dark versus light, right versus wrong. This is not the reality of our complex human experience; life is much more nuanced then these words suggest. Without darkness, light would not exist. Darkness was present in the beginning and was surely created by God, so to be in darkness is not to be absent from God but to be present to God in a different way. Part of our discipleship must be to live well, regardless of our being able to see clearly -  this is called faith. This is a faith which enables us to journey through life trusting in the one who accompanies us on the journey. We face a future which we cannot know, trusting in the God in whom we are all fully known.

To Ponder

  • What does it mean to you to be 'known by God'?
  • Are you conscious of the 'image' you present to others?
  • Do you recognise your own tendency to make judgements based purely on appearances?
  • Every day we are bombarded by multiple images, how do you control their impact upon you?
  • What image do you believe your community has of the church you belong to?

Bible notes author

Deacon Eunice Attwood

Eunice is a Methodist deacon. She is a tutor in Pastoral Theology at the Queen's Foundation in Birmingham, and a member of the Centre for Ministerial Formation since 2012.